“American Dreams”: Interactive and Engaging Virtual Off-Broadway Show, Review by Andrea Santo Felcone


American Dreams cast

Jens Rasmussen, Ali Andre Ali, Imran Sheikh, Andrew Valdez, and Leila Buck. Photo credit: Cherie B. Tay.

It’s very gratifying to see what artists are doing to reimagine theater for our current times: since we can’t enjoy live in-person theater right now, artists will bring theater to us, in our own living rooms. The show must go on, as they say, and it does in “American Dreams,” a newly-imagined virtual Off-Broadway show. Prior to the pandemic, the show was performed in-person, but since, it has been re-imagined to work across a virtual platform–Zoom. Now, before you say you are tired of Zoom, I have to tell you how remarkable it was to see a show actually leverage Zoom to work in its favor. (It was also fascinating to watch a show and see the audience reaction simultaneously.) “American Dreams” is a truly immersive show and is very creative in how the audience can interact with the actors, and thus, affect the show, and especially, in this case, impact the ending.

The concept: Due to federal prohibitions on gathering, a popular TV game show, “American Dreams” has been moved online. The hosts, “Chris” (Jens Rasmussen) and “Sherry” (Leila Buck) appear from their individual home studios–everything appears very professional. The contestants are housed in their “home countries,” where they are competing on this game show for U.S. citizenship. “One lucky winner will receive, right here, tonight, immediate citizenship to the greatest nation on earth…. [APPLAUSE, APPLAUSE, APPLAUSE.]” (Appropriate game show dialogue and music provided.)

The interactive nature begins before you are even “allowed” into the show’s virtual lobby–you are asked to complete a questionnaire about your own background (birth place, birth place of parents, etc.). (I will admit to a fleeting moment of paranoia, wondering if the information was being collected by a real government agency.) This, I’m sure was intentional, as it put you in the shoes of what an immigrant would feel like. This data is used later in the show, as audience participants will come to find out.

The interactive nature of “American Dreams” lets YOU–and the other audience members–decide which contestant will make it into the United States. This is “where the people choose the people”. This places the audience in an interesting and increasingly uncomfortable role, especially when you realize all three contestants are likeable men who deserve entrance. (I’m not sure why female contestants aren’t included, except maybe to make this feel like an “even playing field”?) I’m sure each contestant being equally endearing is also intentional, to make each seem worthy, to emphasize what’s at work under the surface—ultimately, the bias of the audience.

American Dreams cast: cooking challenge

Talent portion of “American Dreams”. Photo credit: Cherie B. Tay.

Let’s meet our contestants: Adil Akram Mansour, (Ali Andre Ali), is a chef/philanthropist from Bethlehem who gives back through a farm-to-table restaurant and soup kitchen. Alejandro Rodriguez, (Andrew Valdez), is a former military medic from Mexico. And, Usman Bhutt, (Imran Sheikh), is a talented illustrator from Pakistan. When asked “What do we call the economic system practiced here in the United States?” Alejandro excitedly buzzes in with “Dollars!” (Sorry, Alejandro, wrong answer, but points for making me laugh.)

There are several rounds to test the contestants on their knowledge including basic civics questions, trivia, and a talent competition. Sometimes audience members (volunteers) help the contestants, sometimes the contestants are on their own. It’s all fun and games until the end when only one contestant can be chosen for citizenship.

As the show evolves, though, there is a shift in mood–you come to focus on the psychology behind the ‘fun and games’. Contestants are aware they are being “judged” and try to charm the audience, knowing the audience is judge and jury to their eventual success or failure. In the “American Dreams” round, the contestants state why they want to come to the United States. These dreamers are literally placed in the “Hot Seat” and the questioning turns to grilling. Here is where it becomes clear (as audience members are asked to “thumbs up” or “down” the contestants’ answers), that real judgement is at play. This is uncomfortable, but for a purpose. (On a side note: the term used to ask the audience what they felt, “give us a temperature check” took me out of the environment of the show and back into the real world of the pandemic. This may be something to tweak for future performances.)

There’s another survey where information about the audience is gathered and shared on screen. It’s interesting to note who the audience is, when boiled down to statistics. Then there’s the final vote. But this isn’t the end. There’s a personalized pledge of allegiance from each contestant which is actually comprised of the earlier written responses from the online audience—a clever way of interweaving audience and actor. In the end, the newest American citizen is announced…. And, drumroll, please … it wasn’t the person I voted for. (Maybe next time.)

“American Dreams” makes you think about American privilege, citizenship, assumptions and personal biases, equity, and any number of other topics. The show is currently enjoying a VIRTUAL TOUR which is hosted through theaters in different places across the country. I would be fascinated to know how, or if, hosting in different locations plays into which contestant is chosen. “American Dreams” feels very much like a social and psychological experiment: one that asks uncomfortable questions, but questions that ultimately need to be asked. An inventive and thought-provoking way to spend an evening.

“American Dreams” was originally created and developed by Leila Buck and Tamilla Woodard in collaboration with Jens Rasmussen.

Cast:

Leila Buck (Writer/Co-creator/Performs as Shrine (Sherry) Brown, co-host of “American Dreams”

Tamilla Woodard (Director/Co-creator)

Jens Rasmussen as Christian (Chris) White, co-host of “American Dreams”

Ali Andre Ali as Contestant Adil Akram Mansour

Andrew Valdez as Contestant Alejandro Rodriguez

Imran Sheikh as Contestant Usman Bhutt

India Nicole Burton as Bree Coffman, the Deputy Director of Culture

Running Time: 90 minutes.

FOR TICKETS (Generally set at $30.00 each):

This newly conceived digital production was developed and produced by Working Theater. This show is currently running in a Virtual Tour, whereby each of the following theaters across the country will host in this VIRTUAL format through Zoom, online for seven weeks:

National Dates: http://www.americandreamsplay.com/

September 26: ASU Gammage

October 2-3: Texas Performing Arts

October 5-11: Round House Theatre:  https://www.roundhousetheatre.org/

October 14-18: Salt Lake Acting Company: https://www.saltlakeactingcompany.org/

October 20–25: Working Theater: https://theworkingtheater.org/

 October 27-Nov 1: HartBeat Ensemble, The Bushnell and UCONN

November 10-15: Marin Theatre Company: https://www.marintheatre.org/productions/american-dreams#tickets

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