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BWW Review: AMERICAN DREAMS at Round House Theatre


“It’s a game. It’s a show. It’s America!”

BWW Review: AMERICAN DREAMS at Round House Theatre

Land of opportunity. The shining city on the hill. A beacon of democracy.

Most of us - regardless of our origins - grew up with these descriptions of the United States. Known for its vibrant history and as a nation of immigrants, the United States has long served as a dream for those who are looking for a better life, a new start, an opportunity.

Enter American Dreams a gameshow competition for American citizenship - and Round House Theatre's latest (virtual) production. The premise of the show builds entirely on this ideal of the American Dream. It's a reality show in which participants make their case through displays of knowledge, showcases of talent, and intense questioning, and the winner is granted the much-coveted citizenship.

The concept of American citizenship being granted as a prize for winning a reality show isn't that outlandish - our complex immigration system has long been the subject of reform efforts, and US citizenship itself is often portrayed as something of a golden ticket. Visas granted for extraordinary talents or through lottery certainly add to this characterization, so the show's premise is more than a little fitting. Likewise, the authoritarian overtones, the questionable spouting of professions of America's greatness, and the ominously cheerful tones of the background music and hosts' banter all feed into the understanding that America, for all of its greatness, has a darker underbelly with which we must contend, no matter how much we try to ignore it.

BWW Review: AMERICAN DREAMS at Round House Theatre
Chris (Jens Rasmussen - far left) and Sherry (Leila Buck - far right) quiz contestants Adil (Ali Andre Ali), Usman (Imran Sheikh), and Alejandro (Andrew Aaron Valdez) in Round House Theatre's American Dreams.

One of the show's biggest issues, unfortunately, is that it simply can't keep up with our reality - Leila Buck's original show was produced in 2018, and it's depressingly far away from 2020. Moments that likely hit as hard statements about racism and xenophobia just a few years ago now feel almost quaint - remember the good old days when islamophobia only meant people accused Muslims of divided loyalties or sexism rather than barring whole countries from emigrating? Remember when we were focused on fighting to prevent a DREAMer from being deported for a minor crime instead of children locked in cages and women forcibly sterilized? The script may only be a few years old, but the prejudices the immigrants face are more closely identified with the Bush era than our current world. Even the displays of patriotism and declarations that the United States is "the greatest nation on earth" lack the punch of irony intended after almost daily caustic comments about "America first" as we watch Covid-19 casualties rise. It's hard to make a statement about the potential for authoritarianism, callousness, and hatred when our reality is so much worse.

That said, Round House's production does manage to adapt the show for the current pandemic incredibly well. The Zoom production, led by Director and co-creator Tamilla Woodard is clever and apropos - contestants are competing via video from embassies in their home countries (with unseen, but threatening US forces just offscreen), and a section of the audience is selected to keep their cameras on for on-screen participation. Additionally, Round House takes advantage of the available technologies to poll the audience both on their backgrounds before the show and for their in-show impressions of the contestants, allowing for real-time responses and an interesting compilation of the data collected to show the specific performances' audience breakdowns. Even the onscreen points monitoring and the placement of propaganda is cleverly worked into the show with the use of the technology on hand; video designer Katherine Freer works with virtual performance designers from VIDco and graphic designer the watsons to bring audiences a smart and immersive experience. Ryan T. Patterson's scenic design and consistent branding (including matching mugs and cue cards with American Dreams logos) tied together the multiple filming locations nicely, and added to the sense of cohesiveness and control that defines the competition's ambiance. From a production standpoint, the adaptations to the pandemic are excellent - the show leaned into the Zoom format, and it worked. At the same time, the feeling that the content was out of date was only made even starker in comparison, and the overall effect was a serious disconnect.

BWW Review: AMERICAN DREAMS at Round House Theatre
Chris (Jens Rasmussen - left) and Sherry (Leila Buck - right) participate in Adil's (Ali Andre Ali) cooking demonstration.

The disconnect was also felt in the characters themselves. Although the cast did an excellent job, our 2020 perspectives made for more nuanced viewing (though some of these issues might have been noted in the initial performances as well). It's notably odd that only men were even competing for these roles - it might be my inner immigration wonk focusing on how it's harder for women to meet general education and work requirements if they come from countries where their access to both are limited, though you would expect that to make them more likely contestants for this route to citizenship. Additionally, my friend, who also attended, found it odd that not a single contestant (or host) mentioned being married or having kids, factors that would certainly matter for their immigration stories, and would be fitting with their respective situations. For all the backstory we're given for the three contestants to justify their desire for American citizenship, we don't really get to see their personalities or relationships to others. They're very much defined by their labels: Adil (Ali Andre Ali) is a chef and business owner; Usman (Imran Sheikh) is an artist; Alejandro (Andrew Aaron Valdez) is a medic. We don't get to know them as people, just as identities. And, truthfully, we don't even get that much from our aggressively cheerful hosts - Chris (Jens Rasmussen, who is also a co-creator of the show) is noted to have been in the military and adopts a militaristic stance for the "hot seat" questioning, and Sherry (Buck) mentions in passing that she is of Lebanese descent and uses a few Arabic words in a brief exchange, but we are again missing rounded characters. Bree (India Nicole Burton), our cheerful emcee, serves as a great audience coordinator, but we never see anything but a polished image, even in the face of technical issues. Maybe it's the point, but it felt like a waste of the casts' talents to not give them whole people to portray, mostly because the glimmers we do see (such as Adil's reaction to a reference to "Israeli salad" and Usman's questioning of the system itself) are quite good.

Overall, Round House Theatre leans into our current circumstances and puts on a good show. It's just a shame that our reality is so much worse than we could have envisioned only a few years ago that even cautionary and bitingly political statements now fall short of where we really are.

Round House Theatre's production of American Dreams is playing virtually through October 11. Tickets are $30 and can be found along with more information on Round House's website.

Photos courtesy of Round House Theatre.

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