The show, which was conceived by director Michael Bateman DRA ’13, but according the program, “created by” the entire ensemble, uses minimal props and set pieces to transport its audience into an interactive disaster zone, a city in the grip of a hurricane (snippets of radio reports interspersed in the show suggest we are in New York during Hurricane Sandy). Sarah and Hugh, introduced as explicit audience surrogates, receive a panicked call from their friend Larry, who is trapped in a slowly flooding elevator somewhere downtown. They set out to save him, but on the way encounter moral quandaries at every turn and other people in distress (The “Non-Player Characters,” who are not directly subject to our whimsy, Rachel Carpman DRA ’15, Zach LeClair and Dan Perez DRA ’13). At each moment of crisis, the jocular emcee (Benjamin Fainstein DRA ’13) calls out “Dilemma!” to freeze the action before putting the characters’ decisions in the audience’s hands.
As you might guess, the moral decisions proffered by the emcee become both weightier and murkier as the play goes on and the floodwaters rise. Would you give up your friend’s much-needed inhaler to a desperate father claiming he needs it for his son? Christopher Ash’s DRA ’14 ingenious set, meanwhile, occasionally flashes a digital countdown reminding you how much air Larry has in his elevator. Despite the pressure on the characters (and, by extension, the audience) the emcee never loses his leisurely manner. He varies how we in the audience choose the characters’ paths, starting with an applause-o-meter before offering viewers a chance to discuss options among themselves before voting. A climactic moment occurs when the emcee offers a single audience member a stark ultimatum, essentially a version of the classic out-of-control trolley thought experiment, but the decision is rendered personal by our investment in and identification with the characters involved.
“Dilemma!” moves at a brisk clip, as the emcee makes a point of never giving the audience quite as much time as they would like to make these crucial choices. All the cast members are gung ho and display improvisational flair due to the unpredictability of their interactions with the audience. The show has a sense of humor — the aforementioned cat lady is a comedic standout — but it also leaves one feeling more and more culpable when it becomes clear that we cannot save all the characters that need us. I found myself wishing to return and lobby for different decisions at a later performance, just to see what other outcomes the adventure could reach. “Dilemma!” is both a lively piece of experimental theater and a meditation on the pitfalls of making ethical decisions by groupthink. I recommend seeing it at least once, and maybe more than once if you are as fascinated as I am with this show’s commitment to making the ideas of the audience have consequences.
“Dilemma!” will be performed at the Yale Cabaret through 8:00 p.m. and 11:00 p.m. on Saturday, Dec. 8th.