Game-show parody ‘American Dreams’ asks provocative questions

Aurora Theatre premieres clever audio play ‘The Flats’

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What if our government granted citizenship to immigrants based on their responses as contestants on a TV quiz show?

And what if the studio audience got to vote?

That’s the crazy concept for “American Dreams,” created by Leila Buck and New York’s Working Theater and presented on Zoom. Now, partnering with Marin Theatre Company and a few other theaters, it’s streaming nationwide.

Directed by Tamilla Woodard, “American Dreams” allows a limited number of viewers to, at various times, see one another on a grid, cheer and applaud the three hapless contestants, vote for their favorites by way of pop-up questionnaires and ultimately choose who among the three eager would-be Americans should be citizens.

A few chosen viewers at each live performance get to challenge the contestants with questions of their own.

Two hosts (Buck and Jens Rasmussen) and a moderator (India Nicole Burton) control the proceedings, plus an unseen crack team of technicians (a few problems occurred at the screening I saw, but they were quickly fixed).

And the three actors (Ali Andre Ali, Andrew Aaron Valdez and Imran Sheikh, male only, for some reason) very convincingly play the three contestants of varied nationalities, ethnicities and religious affiliations.

The hosts start out by posing a series of routine civics and culture questions, and the contestants press a bell and garner points, just like in a real TV game show.

They also each get to demonstrate a skill (one prepares a salad, another recites a poem, the third draws a picture), explain why they want to live here and improvise answers to audience queries.

“American Dreams” has a game-show-satire vibe, complete with overly perky hosts straining to be amusing, and nervous, anxious, hyper-excited contestants.

But it darkens toward the end as the hosts suddenly turn hostile and aggressive. So it’s no longer mildly, comfortably, funny; rather, it’s downright unsettling. You can’t help thinking about the dire ramifications of the whole governmental process that’s being so cleverly mocked.

This is a thought-provoking, worrisome look at one of the most important issues facing the nation.

“American Dreams” streams Nov. 10-15; tickets are $30; visit marintheatre.org

The Flats

Cleverly, Aurora Theatre commissioned three local playwrights to create an audio world premiere: a three-part saga about tenants in an apartment building in Berkeley coping with a sudden and mysterious disaster. Forced to shelter in place, they realize they have no one but one another to depend upon.

In Episode 1, written by nationally lauded playwright Lauren Gunderson, we meet the three, each living alone in a flat in the triplex.

Leonard (Anthony Fusco), an eccentric and pedantic old hippie, runs a weekly YouTube show in which he promotes his conspiracy theories and other odd beliefs.

Brooke (Khary L. Moye) is an African-American whose girlfriend hastened to her husband in the Berkeley hills instead of to him when the lockdown went into effect.

Emotionally distraught, feisty Harmony (Lauren English) happened to be caught in Berkeley at that same moment, but her estranged husband and children are in Sacramento. Luckily she owns this building, and there was a spare apartment for her to move into.

None of the three know what’s going on, but it’s clear they’re going to need one another.

The word flat takes on several meanings in this entertaining quasi-sci-fi story that resembles our own troubling circumstances; it doesn’t just refer to the separate apartments that the three occupy but also to the flat, shiny discs that appeared in the sky—apparently spaceships—and that have caused the sudden global emergency.

In Cleavon Smith’s Episode 2, the three intrepid tenants hatch a far-fetched plan to save the world.

And in Episode 3, by Jonathan Spector, who wrote the excellent “Eureka Day,” the trio sets off on a fool’s errand to save humanity.

But they discover that their true mission is to reconsider their own individual life’s journeys—just as some of us may be doing these days.

It’s a simple, even predictable narrative that’s worlds away from Aurora’s usual complex plays, but well suited for easy listening.

Under Josh Costello’s direction, the acting is so precise, and Elton Bradman’s sound design so detailed and specific (at first I thought the continual surveillance helicopters were flying over my house; no aural detail, such as banging screen doors or passing traffic or twittering birds is too small to register) that after you listen to all three episodes, you might very well have the strange sensation that you’ve actually seen the actors rather than just heard them.

“The Flats” streams through July 31; tickets are $20 for all three episodes; visit https://auroratheatre.org/the-flats

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