Actress and playwright Eliana Pipes is a Force! I suspected this when I read her impressive resume (too lengthy to list here), and my suspicion was confirmed when I saw Shotgun Players superb staging of her superb play, “Dreamhou$se.”
The difficulties of sustaining meaningful family, ethnic, cultural and community identity in the face of such challenges as neighborhood gentrification are familiar themes. Their elegant management in this cleverly plotted, beautifully written, funny and moving play are all highly original.
The Castillo sisters have recently inherited the family home in a once poor but now gentrifying barrio and a reality TV show (“Flip It And List It”) has come knocking at their door. If selected for the show, the producers will pay the cost of a renovation and put the home on the market under the care of super realtor and TV personality Tessa. The sale price of the home will cover the cost of the renovations, but if their gamble pays off, the profit could be in the millions of dollars.
The two sisters, however, are ambivalent. Julia, in particular, develops a new fondness for the old neighborhood and Latinx culture, and has doubts about selling out. Patricia, far more practical, is all-too-willing.
The debates between the two sisters raise many issues that are intelligently discussed. This set up is certainly stageworthy and would make a fine play. But Eliana Pipes is not satisfied to write an intelligent, didactic, “issue” play. By setting up the plot as a reality TV show, she swings for a comedic home run and hits the ball out of the park.
Director Karina Gutiérrez understands exactly how to capture the feel of a TV set. The reality TV vibe is spot on. All of the design team contributes to this effect, but it is a special joy to call out props designer Devon Labelle. Prop designers are usually the least visible component of a design team, although they can make a real difference to a production. In this case, Labelle is called upon to do a great deal (I won’t risk spoiling this point with details) and makes the most of it.
All of the cast is excellent, including the TV crew who say little but capture exactly the behavior of the breed. The comedic coup detat is delivered by Libby Oberlin as Tessa, the realtor/TV host. She is hiilariously funny, while avoiding caricature. Her determinedly upbeat and talented Tessa is immediately recognizable as an utterly typical TV game show host. She shifts easily from Tessa’s onscreen to offscreen persona, showing both her professionalism and her sensitivity. In the hands of another actress, this part could have been a very funny impersonation of a familiar type, but Oberlin brings a depth of feeling and sensitivity that deepens the emotional impact of the play immeasurably.
The issues explored by “Dream Hou$e” are not new or particularly enlightening. But the writing is exceptional, the execution grand, and the perormances insightful. And you’ll laugh a lot!
“Dreamhou$e” plays at Shotgun Players in Berkeley through August 14. For further information click here.
Rating: **** (For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)
“Dreamhou$e” by Eliana Pipes. Presented by Shotgun Players. Director: Karina Gutiérrez. Set and video co-designer: Carlos Aceves. Costume Designer: Alice Ruiz. Sound Designer: Chris Sauceda. Props Designer: Devon Labelle. Lighting Designer and video co-designer: Claudio Andres Silva Restrapo. Fight Choreographer: Zoë Swenson-Graham.
Patrcia: Elena Estrér. Julia: Linda Maria Girón. Tessa: Libby Oberlin. Sundiata Ayinde: Television Crew. Mylo Cardona: Television Crew. Daniel J. Eslick: Television Crew. Louel Señores: Television Crew.