Review: The Filigree Theatre's Fire in Dreamland

This compelling drama ignites but doesn’t blaze

Kathleen Fletcher as Kate and Brough Hansen as Jaap in Filigree Theatre's Fire in Dreamland (Photo by Steve Rogers Photography)

The historic Coney Island amusement park in Brooklyn is known for its landmark roller coasters, national hot dog eating contest, and annual Mermaid Parade that has featured thousands of sea creature-identifying participants in homemade costumes and attracted hundreds of thousands of curious onlookers. But the focus of Rinne Groff's three-character drama Fire in Dreamland – first performed in 2016 and now being given a low-budget but highly compelling production by Filigree Theatre – is the three disasters that have taken place in the vicinity.

The titular disaster occurred in 1911, when the wood-constructed boardwalk, rides, and sideshow stalls of the amusement park known as Dreamland went up in flames in a late-night accident, blazed for 3½ hours, leveled five city blocks, and tragically killed nearly all the circus animals. The story of how things unfolded is told with often eloquent and vivid language in a lengthy and dramatic monologue early in the play by Coney Island townie Kate (played by a relatable, mesmerizing Kathleen Fletcher), the play's protagonist and oft-employed narrator.

The second disaster, a flood caused by Hurricane Sandy that devastated New York's coastline, took place in 2012. In its wake, a year later, we find Kate on a waterlogged boardwalk, demoralized by the catastrophic impact of the flood on the community, depressed by the recent death of her father and his deathbed wish that she do something meaningful with her life, and disillusioned by her go-nowhere job as a low-level bureaucrat. She's desperate for something to live for and believe in.

And then Kate meets Jaap (played by an affable Brough Hansen with adorable broken English), who's happy to be her something. He's a Dutch dreamer and amateur filmmaker working on a movie about the 1911 flood. He's also a passive-aggressive opportunist. After moving in with Kate, he casually appropriates her credit card and conveniently forgets to mention his sexual liaison with Lance (played by a charmingly effusive Allen Porterie), a naive student at the New York City School of Film with access to a camera and a clapperboard. Kate buys into Jaap's project and attention. She accepts his belittling and lies. She is the third disaster.

The playwright squeezes quite a lot into her short play and director Elizabeth V. Newman does a terrific job bringing most of it to life. Under her guidance, her talented actors create complex characters out of their dialogue and make the most of their monologues, subtly drawing metaphors from the material that connect aspects of the Coney Island natural disasters to their own life stories. There are moments when performances spark and then ignite from the intensity and friction they generate. But the production never blazes.

The reason is the poor use of the performance space – a small area in the back of a vacant, no-frills Quonset hut. Its concrete flooring, makeshift lighting, and austere scenic design by Alison Lewis compromise the storytelling and get in the way of Newman's realization of Groff's creative vision. Only Kate's bedroom is constructed in this space although, conceptually, many scenes are meant to occur on a wooden Coney Island boardwalk. The bench in Kate's room is used for that purpose, without proper isolation, which easily taxes the audience's suspension of disbelief.

So, too, does the execution of the script's call for enacted jump cuts, cutaways, and moments on stage when a narrative scene breaks into a brief flashback or reminiscence, intended to give the production a filmic flourish since the making of a film is at the heart of this play. Little is done to distinguish these moments from the rest of the play's action other than their introduction by a projected time code to the right of the performance space and the tone of an auto-sync edit, courtesy of sound designer Johann Solo.

Still, Fire in Dreamland tells an intriguing story worth attending. Even if the underdeveloped interludes don't pay dividends, the acting throughout the play most certainly does.

The Filigree Theatre's Fire in Dreamland

Factory on 5th, 3409 E. Fifth, 737/400-8261
Through Feb. 12
Time: 1 hr., 30 min.

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The Filigree Theatre, Fire in Dreamland, Coney Island, Elizabeth V. Newman, Rinne Groff, Kathleen Fletcher

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