Most medical issues have their beginning in a bathroom or, failing that, quickly find their way to one. In our white-glove modernity, the bathroom is reserved uniquely as the site of all acts too animalistic and unseemly for polite space yet too inextricably human to be avoided, those acts that bedevil us as they define us and which torment us with their predictable vulgarity. Every such event is a tiny, unstoppable bullet, a metaphysical gamma ray that passes through and violates our carefully cultivated senses of dignity, our senses of self. The malodorous, the bloody, the painful, the unsightly: all streaming through without malice or intent but equally, too, without mercy or consideration, blotting the canvas haphazardly to remind us in a one-way dialogue that we are impermanent, disposable, mortal. Most trips are as quotidian as anything in our ultimately mayfly existence, but nonetheless, when we do glimpse the minute hand advancing, it is often in a bathroom that we do so. And it is in exactly this type of stygian space that Walter finds himself when the curtains part on “Where All Good Rabbits Go,” the latest 80 minutes of meditative, theatrical poetry from FaultLine Theater.
Walter, played incisively by the clean-cut and sharply built Ed Berkeley, is a farmer, and scattered flashbacks show us that his life is ordinary in that inimitable way that each of ours is. The broad lines of his character—he is married to a woman named Julia—blur into the generic, the way a mitten fits anybody, but the deviations and unexpected subtleties—she is a fashion designer—paint a more intricate contour of a deeper man below.
Walter’s backstory, as well as Julia’s, is supplied mainly by this type of narrative shorthand, an effective device that allows the play to start with an existential bang instead of an hour of prologue. As scene one opens, the couple is fidgeting about their apartment while preparing for an entirely standard dinner with friends. Julia, played now by the wonderfully tender and emotive Charlie D. Gray, is scrambling to assemble something to bring with them, but their unplanned and disjointed ingredient options (half a bottle of wine, some tomatoes) are not immediately suggestive of any good ideas. She lightheartedly chronicles this out loud, intending to entertain her husband, who has been getting ready in the bathroom. And as she goes on, you can feel the room begin to fill with the type of silent black powder that emerges unbidden in any relationship whenever one half realizes before the other that reality has changed. It spills in unnoticed, like a natural gas leak around a person with a head cold, yearning for the ever-more-probable spark.
“Let’s go,” Walter says stoically, as he emerges from the bathroom, but Julia can feel that something is off. Like a bloodhound on the scent, she levies bullseye questions at his initial tough front until he relents and shows his lower back. She gasps and goes silent: a bunny tail.
In the world of Rabbits, people do not die. They instead, at some point, turn into rabbits, a process which we can intuit typically occurs in old age. After its explosive initial scene, juxtaposing dread realization against tufty physical comedy, the play bears headlong into an examination of terminal illness and death, swelling inexorably from first shaky, deniable diagnosis to unmistakable deterioration, then, steadily, from the calmed lull of premonitory acquiescence to the moment of passing and through to the denouement of grief and the time of loss on the other side.
Though there is no exact parallel within human disease for the play’s rabbit transition, in many ways it is a direct allegory for cancer, and doubly so for cancer at a young age. Karina Cochran, the show’s insightful and sincere playwright, credibly bleeds through the lines of her book like somebody who has personally experienced loss to cancer under the auspices of the modern medical system, and it would surprise me to hear that she hadn’t. In so many details, she nods her head lyrically, subtly toward medicine and malignancy: the rabbit disease can be cut out when it is early and local to one part of the body, but its later stages spread to other organs; it doesn’t seem contagious, but it can run in families; its treatments are often temporary and incomplete, involving confusing gradations of “success” and depressing words like “ventilation machine.” And, maybe most tellingly, the actual process is referred to as a “transformation.” In oncology, the core primordial event of cancer is also termed “transformation,” and it denotes that exact moment when our own flesh and blood first turns on us, when the first cellular snowflake of what will eventually be a tumorous avalanche first mutates and rewires its careful, loving developmental program toward chaos and irony, toward an unstoppable death by unstoppable growth.
Cancer may be so uniquely repugnant because it seems to directly spit at and mock us from a hateful uncanny valley: our own turncoat cells laughing back at us in almost our own voice, genetic strands only a hair’s breadth off, a tissue so close and dear to us that our own blood vessels can’t help but feed it, a presence so natural our own immune system can’t bring itself to attack. It defiles the concepts of growth and change, and Rabbits does an elegant job of capturing and defining this. When a person dies, it is not easy to definitively disentangle the sadness of losing them from the sadness of their body being reduced to decay. However, the conceit in Rabbits allows us to isolate the pure grief of the loss. Walter is transforming into a bunny, and neither Walters nor bunnies are upsetting in and of themselves, yet the change is tragic. This is a rare achievement of theater or any other art to let us run such a thought experiment, to show us that it is the fact of change itself that hurts so much, not the exact nature of the end product.
Rabbits, under the ever-steady rudder hand of talented young director Cole Ferraiuolo, also succeeds in crystallizing many small human aspects of the shared sickness journey, fleeting moments that act as an essential trim around the main plot and without which the whole would be cardboard. Prime among these may be the occasional dips into magical thinking that the characters take. Blink and you’ll miss it, but Walter wonders, mid stream of thought, whether eating too many carrots once as a child was actually a portent of his early transformation, and Julia descends quietly into ceasing to say the word “rabbit” at all, a practice which she eventually admits is predicated on a feeling that the word itself might, in fact, be magical. These small psychic unmoorings are not weakness, and they are not uncommon, either. In the face of abrupt, wild change that upends one’s mental model of the world, a natural reaction is to wonder whether there might be other unexpected magic at work, as well. When Walter butts up against the too-common clay feet of standard medicine, unintentionally hidden from the lay public but hidden nonetheless, he, in forced desperation, begins to countenance bizarre cure anecdotes that he wouldn’t have before: “I read about a man on the brink of transformation and then he threw himself into the Atlantic Ocean […] Then I guess he crawled back to shore and he was fine. And I guess he’s still alive today.” Our “sane” view of reality clings to a fine line of consistent, ongoing health, the disappearance of which reduces what we previously regarded as the way of the world to just another flimsy theory in need of better evidence.
One topic that I do feel Rabbits misses the mark on, or at least reduces to a trope, is the nature and mental state of the western doctor. Dorn, the scholarly physician brother of Julia, makes up the third of the three main characters in the story, and his personality is simultaneously complex yet compacted, losing its dimensionality as it follows the well-trodden “complex doctor” script that has now artistically ossified nearly as far as the hardboiled detective or the spunky small-town girl. In this casting, the doctor is “awkward but kind,” a master of the medically recondite but a perpetual greenhorn in matters of emotion. Like the “frat boy with a heart of gold,” this yin-yang imparts automatic fertile ground for narrative arc, but only in the same way that pouring MSG on your food enhances its flavor. This is not to say that the character is bad; it’s just a bit prefabricated and slightly transparent as a springboard and foil for the personal changes of Julia and Walter. Derek Jones, however, masterfully fills the role. His mannerisms and constant demeanor of equanimity and compassion do accurately reflect what doctors aim for, the dependable outward expression of a deep-seated inward desire to help and guide their loved ones in times of abject sorrow and through negative circumstances, even and especially when they don’t know how to do so well.
It is worth noting, too, that a doctor’s loved ones often extend far beyond typical friends and family, well into the realm of professional interactions. There is a common idea, adopted even by some doctors, such as Dorn in this play, that a physician can only cope by keeping their patients at arm’s length, that they must prevent themselves from becoming invested in their work on an emotional level. Thankfully, this dangerous idea is mistaken. The truth is that many doctors invest deeply in their truly sick patients, a practice brought on from their lives before medical school and carried forward in what is typically an irrepressible fashion, holding them in thrall, no more able to alter it and still preserve their motive force than a plane could lift without its wings. The difference emerges instead in the slow, accumulated change over time of a doctor’s reaction to this investment and its unavoidable fallout. They learn to pierce another human’s skin and to cause bleeding so that they might deliver comforting medications. They learn to tug a broken limb like a torturer so that they might set it better in its healing. And they learn to row the boat across Styx when it must be rowed, when it is their job and their incumbency, their role in the process often becoming more known and endurable with repeated forced exposure, though it may never become easy. These are tasks to which they gravitate on account of calling rather than callousness and rites that are as hallowed to them in private moments of reflection as any in their lives. The calm in a doctor’s face is not indifference; it is the hard-learned and wind-whittled equipoise of a human who has made themselves live life as a bridge for those they love.
The possible missed opportunity for a richer Dorn is easily forgivable, though, as the show so outright succeeds in its basic task of circumscribing and conveying death with accuracy but without frigid sterility, with sentiment but without maudlin or treacle. It embraces and announces the unheralded indignities that latch to all death processes, for example, by finding a pleasingly sophomoric, coprophagic vessel in which to cast them so that their rightful import might be understood under a smile instead of endless somberness. It then validates the devastation of a loved one’s guilt when crushed under a caretaker role that both demands and repulses them, while also showing them having a more goofily bombastic reaction to a gift casserole than they have likely ever had before. In small touches, Rabbits gets right the limits of our medicine, too, without indulging the easy sucker punch of implying that the whole endeavor is a waste. Dorn is made a respectable ambassador of the craft, always trying, even as he fundamentally knows that he and everybody else will lose.
One final gift of the transformation symbolism in Rabbits is its natural ability to be a metaphor for grief. When people change to rabbits in the play, they do not immediately disappear. They are instead kept by their families for one year and then taken to the Sacred Green Space to live out their bunny existences, and that interstitial year is vital to the expository abilities of the work, as it gives a physical manifestation to the acutely intense first year of grief that follows a loss. After Walter finishes his transformation, he remains present in the production as a literal bunny while Julia wears black and holds various stages of the mourning vigil that visits every type of survivor. The device works well, and if nothing else, the audience gets to enjoy a very cute and happy-appearing bunny for the last 10 or 15 minutes of the production.
It also wouldn’t be a FaultLine piece if the theater craft weren’t top-notch, and Rabbits is no exception here. Most immediate, as ever, is Max Chanowitz’s set design. The single-scene black box now features the skeletonized two-by-four framing of an apartment interior, cut somewhat obliquely and presented so that you can understand the dwelling’s layout and passages while still seeing everything at once. Even the kitchen cabinets are made in x-ray vision, and the space past all the bare studs keeps the set from feeling claustrophobic while it manages to contain an entire one-bedroom with no loss of credibility. Furthermore, the suspended disbelief of the actors interacting with the interior doors and walls dovetails perfectly with the tendency for transforming rabbits to see the wood for what it really is and gnaw on it, another sign of their halfway existence between the accepted world of reality and the more magical, obscured one that lies beyond it. Filling in the illusion on top of this beguiling framework are the lights of Maxx Kurzunski and the costumes of Brooke Jennings, yeoman laborers who quietly excel at their crafts in that way that can only be seen and appreciated when you go looking for what has intentionally made itself seamless.
You might also find that the music, both between scenes and during some moments of high gravity, seems better than expected, more coherent and seemingly bespoke than small theater groups can usually pull off. I was first grabbed by a warm and hazy distortion that bubbled in prominently during an early scene change, a more center-stage type of sonic detail than is usually allowed of ligature music, and possessing a notable melody that felt natural but seemed unplaceable. Soon, the languid yet purposeful guitar was joined by an exposed, unforced voice in double layers, calling up something like a Conor Oberst song I had never heard or, equally likely, some famous dorm-room indie band I had missed. By the time a late-act waltz was matching melancholy to detached hints of accepting tranquility, just as the same was happening on stage in the acting, I was furiously writing down fragments of lyrics so that I could look up whoever this was later. There turned out to be no need for this, though, as the program will tell you that the entirety of the music was made purpose-built by a guy named Evan Wardell. I guess it wouldn’t be San Francisco if even the buried details of a backstreet production by a young theater group in the small black box of a new venue weren’t secretly stuffed with treasures, a city with an embarrassment of art so extensive that something like an objectively good one-off score can easily be lost amongst the greatness.
Then, as the Wardell tones wafted over a dark stage for near the last time, a fully transformed troupe of bunnies hopped by in sync with each other and the charming choreography of Nikki Meñez. An omnipresent but silent Greek chorus, they had begun the show in human form and in various apparent stages of life, but with each passing scene, they had progressively been picked off one by one: a new tail tufting here, a new nose twitching there. They were superficial comedy but also, in equal measure, a heavy philosophical counterweight, a live-action lagomorphic hourglass, ticking away slowly and constantly in the background to remind us that Walter’s plight was just one of many, one more scrap of bark on an infinite sea. And as Walter was going, so would we all eventually, united completely by the one thing that not one of us can avoid yet which paradoxically draws its definition from an ultimate loneliness and separation. “We can’t be in this together. It’s something we can’t do together, because it’s happening to me,” says Walter to Julia. And then he walks into the bathroom.
- Saturday, 2/18 @ 7:30pm
- Thursday, 2/23 @ 7:30pm
- Friday, 2/24 @ 7:30pm
- Saturday, 2/25 @ 7:30pm
- Thursday, 3/2 @ 7:30pm
- Friday, 3/3 @ 7:30pm
- Saturday, 3/4 @ 7:30pm