A Choice Play

With Dilemma! the Yale Cabaret closed the first semester of the 2012-13 season this past weekend.  Conceived by Michael Bateman and created by an ensemble of players and an artistic team mostly working outside their disciplines, Dilemma! is an interactive play that demands audience participation.  Stopping the action with a chiming sound and the word “dilemma,” MC Ben Fainstein puts to the crowd two choices faced by the characters at that moment.  Once a choice is made, the play continues until the next dilemma arises, with the audience gaining a rooting interest as their choices are followed or not. The story takes its cue from a major storm situation like Hurricane Sandy with power outages and scarce resources: two roommates, Hugh (Hugh Farrell) and Sarah (Sarah Krasnow), receive a desperate call from their other roommate, Larry: he’s stuck in an elevator and the water level is rising!  Hugh and Sarah, in comical panic mode, begin to rush about trying to find a map to where he is, a car to get them there, and various implements that they will need to rescue their hapless friend.  Rather than a treasure hunt with clues to find the needed objects, Dilemma! presents the duo with a series of situations involving one or two interlocutors who they must decide how to deal with: do they, for instance, steal a useful shovel from a somewhat daft old woman trying to free her “pussies” from a prison of debris, or should they waste valuable time aiding her? Should they fulfill the condition of a truculent barkeep and car owner—find him a live musical act that can play with no electricity—in order to use his car to drive to Larry’s aid, or simply deck the dude and take the keys?  Such are the decisions before the audience, with the winning vote determining what path our “avatars” will follow.

The mechanism by which deciding votes are cast for one choice or the other varies, which in turn contributes to how things go.  If the whole crowd chooses, you can get a very different outcome than if the choice is left to one table or one argument.  The variety of methods, and Fainstein’s quick choices of how to decide, kept everyone guessing—who is really directing this show?  And where is it going?  What’s more, some of the choices are clearly crucial to the plot—the one about the inhaler (Sarah has asthma), for instance—while others simply force one to make a moral choice—who gets a scarce flashlight, who gets punched out for information—that make little difference to the story’s outcome, but which might affect one’s satisfaction with how our avatars play the game.  At a certain point it became clear that the real point might not simply be rescuing Larry, but how dirty “our” hands would be by that point, and, also, ethics aside, how much fun we would have getting there.  Sometimes the best choice from the view of expediency is not the best choice from the point of view of dramatic or comic interest.

In the end, it’s likely that no one is completely happy with the outcome.  The Cab posted the tallies for each choice on Facebook, though without the flowchart that would be necessary to see which choice followed which.  Certain possibilities were never explored—Larry was always in love with Hugh, not Sarah, for instance—and the final outcomes—Larry is rescued, or a group of strangers, also trapped, is rescued instead—balanced out.

Everyone in the play—Fainstein, Farrell, Krasnow, Rachel Carpman, Zach LeClair, Dan Perez—acquitted themselves well.  Bateman and the Ensemble offer, cleverly, situations in which there are winners and losers, and one’s attitude toward that is often determined by whether or not one feels the right person is winning.  Dilemma! made for an engaging evening of theater that felt almost like a spectator sport. It was quite fun, and more exciting if you felt strongly about one choice or another.   The situations could be silly or sinister; the consequences might be lethal or laughable—along the way we might reflect on how much violence and illegality we’ll accept in the name of an emergency, and, the ultimate dilemma, do we want a play to end happily or unhappily?  And for whom?

Dilemma! Conceived by Michael Bateman Created by Ensemble Director: Michael Bateman; Set/ Projection/Lighting Designer: Christopher Ash; Costume Designer: Seth Bodie; Sound Designer: Matt Otto; Technical Director: James Lanius; Dramaturg: Rachel Carpman; Stage Manager/Producer: Reynaldi Lolong

Yale Cabaret December 6-8, 2012

The Yale Cabaret’s Spring Season will begin on January 17th.