In 1911, a fire destroyed Coney Island’s Dreamland amusement park. Filigree Theatre’s latest production, “Fire in Dreamland” written by Rinne Groff is set 101 years later, in the wake of Hurricane Sandy. It is directed by Elizabeth V. Newman and performed at Factory on 5th, a cold pink warehouse with a high arched ceiling in the style of a Quonset hut.
While crying on the beach, Kate (Kathleen Fletcher), a woman grieving her father, meets Jaap (Brough Hansen) a Dutch filmmaker who plans to use the storm-leveled Coney Island of 2012 as the backdrop for a film about the animals killed in the 1911 fire. Taken in by his European charm, Kate impulsively kisses Jaap, brings him home, and lets him stay with her indefinitely. Jaap walks out on her, then returns unannounced, and moves in permanently.
Jaap drops out of film school, endangering his visa, to work on his pet project full time, and Kate decides to make his film the most important thing in her life too. She quits her unsatisfying job in urban redevelopment to support it. While Jaap is uncompromising about his vision, fixating on how to bring a lion to the beach, Kate becomes the film’s dramaturg and community liaison, conducting research, coordinating permits, and organizing a Kickstarter fundraising campaign.
Jaap inspires Kate, but in a delusional, self-destructive way. She removes the drywall from a hole in her apartment, creating a glassless window through which rain pours. She goes into credit card debt so Jaap can buy bitcoin to pay teenagers in India to edit his footage. After filming at the annual Mermaid Parade, in a simple but sparkly costume designed by Maddy Lamb, she even agrees to marry him, convinced she’s “doing beautiful” rather than reasonable. Time and again, when Jaap puts Kate in a jam, or verbally demeans her, his boyish enthusiasm about the film and its development irrationally convince Kate to let him back in.
Throughout the play, it’s difficult to connect with the characters because their choices, especially Kate’s, aren’t staged. Over and over, she stays with Jaap despite the red flags, but time jumps skip over these key decision making moments. Although the scenes jump backwards and forwards in time, their order is mostly linear with a few flashbacks to underscore emotional moments.
The time jumps are marked by dates and times projected on the wall in Johann Solo’s unambitious projection design. These date and time change announcements are the only way projections are used, despite the swaths of white fabric in Alison Lewis’s set design.
This fabric drapes from the ceiling in a bigtop-esque shape, evoking Coney Island’s past. Other white fabric scraps wind around the furniture in Kate’s hurricane damaged apartment and form a back wall through which the shadow of some film equipment is visible.
Through it all, the play leans heavily on the film it is purportedly about. Speaking directly to the audience, Kate recounts it shot for shot. There’s a roaring black lion with its mane on fire on top of a roller coaster. A carnival worker dressed as a mermaid leads a group of Shetland ponies to safety. But Kate’s enthusiasm is not enough to make five minutes of movie synopsis interesting without the grand images she describes. She describes how terrible the lion’s roar is supposed to be, but in Johann Solo’s sound design, that too is only heard weakly through laptop speakers.
When Jaap’s film assistant Lance (Allen Porterie), a student from the film school, is introduced in the second act, he gives Kate a much needed reality check. Uncomfortable with the entire situation, he clues her in to at least one of the things Jaap has been hiding. But it’s not until Jaap runs off with another member of the film team, leaving Kate alone and pregnant, that she begins to piece her life back together. Still, even when the stakes are at their highest, her choice about whether or not to keep the child is glossed over, and is announced rather than acted.
In the end, Kate finds peace with being stuck in life, choosing to live the life she’s built rather than recklessly pursue someone else’s artistic dream. “Fire in Dreamland” is a play about filmmaking and compromise, and disasters, both historical and emotional. And just like Jaap’s unfinished film, it never reaches its full potential.