Review #1 of 2: FIRE IN DREAMLAND by Filigree Theatre
by David Glen Robinson
Filigree Theatre’s production of Fire in Dreamland by Rinne Groff is in production now at the alternative space of Factory on Fifth, in keeping with Filigree Theatre’s aesthetic of producing high-quality plays almost by hand work. Factory on Fifth, one in a row of Quonset huts from the end of World War II purposed and repurposed for generations since, seems a perfect fit for Filigree Theatre.
There was a certain kind of contemporary play, all the rage in the 90's and early oughts, that almost rigidly enunciated its priorities, and in so doing created its own sub-genre. Groff's Fire in Dreamland falls into that ghetto. The template: the play must have a cast no larger than five; three is best (check). Takes place in an apartment with problems (check), preferably in Manhattan (aww, but Coney Island is close), inhabited by early-career twenty-somethings (check) open to romance (check), always looking to the stars at the back of the house (check), who lost their moral compass somewhere under the bed (check), and are afflicted with existential despair (check)—or the play wouldn’t have been published.
The despair of Kate, played by Kathleen Fletcher, stems from a promise she made her father on his deathbed: she would be somebody, do something, go far. She despairs of keeping that promise. She’s a social worker employed at a social services office in NYC. The other characters are filmmakers whose dreamland is film. Soon it is hers, too, for she begins her affair with the ill-intentioned Jaap, played by Brough (rhymes-with-enough) Hansen. The spark of their relationship is a shared fascination with the 1911 fire that burned Coney Island to the high-tide mark and killed its circus animals. That historical event was a national sensation about which much was written at the time. It soon slipped from memory, eclipsed by the 1912 sinking of the Titanic. Jaap seeks, with great passion, to revive the Coney Island event in his film (don’t call it a movie) and restore the event’s place among the world’s great disasters. He’s messianic, visionary, aggressive, corrupt, and ignorant of what he’s up against. He entrains all personalities behind his own.
Filmmaking and the film industry together comprise the central motif of the play and are the stars in the eyes of the characters. The film theme portrays faithfully the fascination of younger generations with cinema, including the seductive stink of money that adheres to it. Conveyed, too, is the finance industry's fascination with cinema and the industry’s practice of throwing money at otherwise unworthy student and amateur projects to gain power and control over them. That is the slough of Jaap’s despond.
The production steps out of its own frame with filmic scene cuts and repeated takes with slight differences and projected scene notes, as though the audience were making a film. Interesting.
Filigree Theatre’s production pulls its boots out of the sub-genre muck with an exceptional cast ably directed by Artistic Director Elizabeth V. Newman. Kathleen Fletcher, recently Lady MacBeth for Archive Theatre, leads the cast, displaying, as always, vast emotional range. That range is seen best in two scenes, one showing her reactions to Jaap’s exploitative proposal of marriage (she doesn’t get it), and a second in which she screams him off stage for calling her a “petty bureaucrat.” Aside from these instances of the Power and the Glory, we see the quicksilver thoughts and feelings play across Fletcher’s face in every moment, enriching all her dialogues and speeches. She is a director’s joy and the audience’s delight.
Brough Hansen accepted the challenge of playing within a thick foreign, quasi-European accent through to the end of the play. And he succeeded. The inflections couldn’t quite be placed until a brief interview with him after the play. He said he was from Colorado. That’s it! It was a Colorado accent (and not his normal, everyday one). But seriously, he was a great foil for Fletcher’s Kate, a character who's outrageous but never overdone. Hansen showed great skill conveying some intentions with body language even when the spoken line said something to opposite effect. Audiences love receiving such clues; they feel they've learned one of the secrets of the play. We hope Brough Hansen stays in Austin for many more stage roles.
Allen Porterie as Lance demonstrated mastery of the skills of employing posture and body language to depict character, thought, and feeling. Porterie generously shared them with the audience. He appeared only at the very end of Act I. In Act II, his eyes and hands said all about Lance, from glances and wide-eyed surprise to his manner of holding his jacket closed defensively and insecurely. These physical nuances eventually said much about Jaap and directed the characters down the pathway to the end of the play.
The title is the overarching metaphor of Fire in Dreamland. These characters live in their heads, in dreamland, but to their peril. Kate’s dreams are complex, but they burn, burn. Jaap has only the one dream of his film, and his exploitative nature linked to that dream shows us clearly that he is consumed and burnt up by it; thus, we have a little sympathy for the Devil upon realizing his failure. Lance’s dreams are as wide and youthful as his bespectacled eyes. To say more about them would give away too much. His character is one of those that audiences would like to see as the central character in a sequel .
Fire in Dreamland is recommended for adults fascinated with East Coast values, geography, and history. The play runs from February 2 to 12, 2023 at Factory on Fifth, 3409 E. Fifth in east Austin. The venue is the Quonset hut immediately west of the well-marked Cloud Tree gallery. A large hand is painted on the building front.
February 02 - February 12, 2023
3409 E 5th St.
Austin, TX, 78702
Feb 2nd - 12th 2023 (Thursdays - Sundays, 8 pm)
Factory on 5th 3409 E 5th St., Austin, TX 78702
General admission $48.19, students & seniors $30.87 (fees & taxes included)