Review: Unreal Estate: 'Dream Hou$e' at Shotgun Players

by Jim Gladstone

Bay Area Reporter

Tuesday August 2, 2022

Libby Oberlin, Elena Estér, and Linda Maria Girón in Shotgun Players' production of Eliana Pipes' 'Dreamhou$e'
Libby Oberlin, Elena Estér, and Linda Maria Girón in Shotgun Players' production of Eliana Pipes' 'Dreamhou$e'  (Source:Ben Krantz)

You have an uneasy feeling. Snapshot images arise in your memory, then fade into silence. You're sure that fantastic events have occurred, but can't put a finger on exactly what's happened. You have a sense of urgency, but no rational explanation for it.

So it goes when you wake from a dream. So it shouldn't when you rise from your seat at the end of a theater performance.

Alas, "Dream Hou$e," being presented by Shotgun Players through August 14, has been written with no more coherence than a recollected dream. There are some incredibly vivid fragments and themes in play here. They just don't hang together.

Playwright Eliana Pipes' foreground story — two adult sisters, Patricia (Elana Ester) and Julia (Linda Maria Giron), are selling a longtime family home after their mother's death — is rich territory for drama, and, indeed, in occasional bits of dialogue scattered hither and yon, the womens' conversations touch on poignant universal topics: Legacy and loyalty; generations-old secrets coming to light; sentimental value vs. economic value.

But in what amounts to a fatal collision for the play, Pipes also tries to give audiences a black comic satire about class division. The sisters place their property on "Fix It and Flip It," a real estate program whose crew — through both decoration and demolition — will stage it for sale.

The sisters are Latina, and the TV show host, Tessa (Libby Oberlin), is not only white, but a parody of white privilege. Under Karina Gutierrez's direction, Oberlin plays the role skillfully, with an exaggerated hauteur and painful obliviousness that could make for a brilliant comedy sketch.

In a full-length play though (especially one being presented to socially conscious Bay Area theatergoers), the character is low-hanging fruit that Oberlin — with her spot-on officious tone, presentational posture and condescending attitude — efficiently plucks in her first five minutes on stage. Watching it be redundantly pulped for another 80 minutes is painful.

(Later in the evening, there's what amounts to a sketch-within-the-overextended-sketch as Tessa suddenly jumps into another reality TV genre and seems to become the host of a genealogy research show.)

The show's two modalities — family drama and social satire — never merge, leaving the entire production tonally unbalanced.

Still, what could have just been wobbly becomes a full-tilt flop with the further addition of a magical realist element that allows the sisters to snap their fingers (cue pulsing lights by Claudio Silva) and slip into a sidebar plane of existence where they can hold tete-a-tetes commenting on the rest of the action. Ester and Giron never gain solid footing, as they're asked to shuttle between planes of existence and between writing styles.

Once, and only once, Tessa somehow slips into the sisters' woowoo realm. And while she's there she convinces Patricia to indulge in some dental self-care right out of "Marathon Man."

It's the evening's most intense scene, with a sinister subtext about racial prejudice and upward mobility. Approached academically, one can easily draw connections between this scene and the rest of the play, but dramatically, it lands like a stand-alone, at once disturbing and disconnected.

With its ever-shifting busyness, "Dream Hou$e" is never a snore. But its construction is rickety. Enter at your own risk, and watch out for flying thought-debris.

'Dream Hou$e,' through August 17. Shotgun Players, Ashby Stage, 1901 Ashby Ave, Berkeley. $7-$30. (510) 841-6500. www.shotgunplayers.org

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