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BWW Review: Awash in Ideas and Fun: DREAM HOU$E at Baltimore Center Stage

Now through May 15th.

BWW Review: Awash in Ideas and Fun: DREAM HOU$E at Baltimore Center Stage

As Joni Mitchell once sang, "Something's lost, but something's gained by living every day." Eliana Pipes's mostly comical play Dream Hou$e, now holding forth at Baltimore Center Stage after earlier outings in Atlanta and New Haven, wrestles hard with this universal truth in a very specific personal and social context, the handoff between generations of a home that has sheltered four of them, all in one Latinx family, and now will do so no more, because - gentrification.

Partly the setup is familiar. The parent, dying or dead, leaves behind adult children who have to come to terms with, and realign their relationships in light of the simultaneous loss and liberation such bereavement brings. We've all seen that play a few times. Often, as here, there is a cleavage among the children between the caretakers during the parent's last illness and the ones who have already escaped the home's gravitational force. This may be the first time we've seen it with this particular accent, of speech, of décor, and perhaps of outcome. But still, this is familiar dramatic territory. What is delightfully novel is the gentrification piece.

It turns out that this particular house is situated in a gentrifying, and not coincidentally increasingly transient and Anglo, neighborhood. It is a battery that has been storing up value for generations, and now the family's two surviving daughters, Julia (Darilyn Castillo) and Patricia (Renata Eastlick), are set to discharge it, cash in and move on with their lives. Helping them do so is a reality real estate TV show, Fix It and Flip It, fronted by the unflappable Tessa (Marianna McClellan, rocking a pink pantsuit), all under the constant care of a film crew/house remodeling crew (Ricardo Blagrove, Zipporah Brown, Alix Fenhagen, Zach Rosen). Collectively, the Fix It and Flip It team can be read as either obsequious or totalitarian, deploying an all-knowing expertise about staging and selling houses in service of the show's goal of producing both the highest value for the dead mom's house and the most filmable drama among the participants in the process.

With all this losing and gaining going on, there is indeed some drama to film. Patricia, the mother's caretaker, resents Julia's having left both the mother and Patricia to fend for themselves. Yet it is Julia who has the hardest time with the notion of the family abandoning its homestead, or having it reconstructed for the purpose of selling it. Pregnant Julia has also been holding back from her sister that her boyfriend and she are no longer an item, meaning that Julia is about to become what to her is an unwelcome cliché, a single mother. Together Julia and Patricia must come to terms with the fact that English is now their primary language, and they no longer know exactly what pronunciation to choose when speaking words (like their own names) that sound different in American and Spanish accents. And then there are the revelations, good and bad, that come with opening up walls of the house and discovering surprises there.

But perhaps the biggest drama comes in a somewhat discontinuous dramatic reality; periodically, the reality TV show morphs into a game show, complete with flashing lights and special music cues, in which the power dynamics change. The collaborative ethos (we're all in this selling the house together, however much more we, the Fix It and Flip It team, know about how to do it than do you mere owners) disappears, and the opposed interests of the game show host and the game show contestant take over. Contestants can be humiliated. This is especially so in those moments when the game show begins to take on a heightened transactional nature, and everything is up for sale, including the clothes off one sister's back - and worse. At some point, there seems to be no humiliation or loss the sister will not undergo, however reluctantly, if the price is right, while Tessa, who runs the game, seems to have an infinite supply of money, and hence experiences no actual offsetting loss. Perhaps most painful is the moment when it's revealed that the "faceless investors" who pay for the show have commissioned a memory book that seems better informed about the family history than Patricia, the curator of the family's memory, is.

But it would be oversimplifying, and by a lot, to say that Tessa and the TV show she fronts are predators, and the sisters merely hapless prey. In the end, it is undeniable that the show is the vehicle by which the sisters free themselves from a past that no longer fits them and finance their future, securing benefits that the previous three generations had struggled to provide for them. They genuinely want affluence, and this is the way to get it.

Is it selling out, as their misgivings would have them believe, or is it merely trading up? Playwright Pipes does not exactly spell out her answer to this conundrum, but it seems clear enough that affluence looks like a pretty good deal to her.

This play, then, is a piece awash in ideas, about Latinx identity, about generational wealth transfers, about gentrification, about memory versus history, about personal authenticity, about priorities, about the inherent value of things, about the TV biz, etc., etc., etc. You wouldn't expect a package of all these things to be tied up neatly in a 90-minute performance, and it's not. (I personally found the game show segments, though they made me laugh, so thematically discordant much of the time that they almost seemed like parts of some other play.) But still, this mishmash is undeniably exciting to experience, and I, along with much of the audience, walked out with a definite buzz on. The kind of buzz you get when you've just experienced something exciting and new.

Dream Hou$e, by Eliana Pipes, directed by Laurie Woolery, through May 15, at the Head Theater, Baltimore Center Stage, 700 N. Calvert Street, Baltimore, MD 21230. Tickets $20-74, at 410.332.0033 and https://secure.centerstage.org/overview/3782.

Production photo by Jeremy Daniel.



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