Review: ‘Fire in Dreamland’ Is a Smoldering Metaphor
By Miles Harter, Contributing Writer, July 17, 2018
New York City has a rich and fascinating history. Plays that examine this history frequently can be compelling, and Fire in Dreamland perfectly fits the bill. Here, Coney Island provides the backdrop for two historic New York City disasters, most recently in the aftermath of Superstorm Sandy, but the real focus for the play is the catastrophic 1911 fire at the Dreamland amusement park. That fire destroyed the park, and many animals in its menagerie were killed. There was no loss of human life, unlike the more tragic Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire in Manhattan several months earlier.
The action and brilliant dialogue in Fire in Dreamland, written with passion by Rinne Groff, is set in 2013, merely months after the play’s more recent disaster. There are just three characters, Kate, Jaap, and Lance. The play revolves around the meeting and ensuing shaky personal and business relationship between Kate and Jaap. Kate works with the New York City government, and Jaap has recently arrived from Europe on a student visa to commence work on a film project of the Dreamland fire. Jaap’s work intrigues Kate, and she quickly becomes involved with him and his work. Lance is connected, in differing ways, to Kate and Jaap.
Some of most humorous aspects of the play come as Jaap and Kate share their stories. Kate is unfulfilled in her job and says that she keeps “thinking I’ll just quit and go back to grad school again, but it’s like there’s nothing left to study,” also explaining that she has two masters degrees and a teaching certificate. Some of Jaap’s language difficulties occur especially when Kate tries to explain Teach for America or while delivering some rather esoteric acronyms. Later, as Kate tries to explain an awkward situation to Jaap, although the words this time are not as complicated, he says, “I know what all these words mean, but I still don’t understand what you are saying.”
Fire in Dreamland is at its core a story about dreams, and, especially, Kate’s. The characters movingly examine the tragic plight of the animals in the Dreamland fire, in particular a lion called the Black Prince and a baby elephant. In one mournful soliloquy, Jaap describes the wretched roar of the Black Prince, and then in a bit of foreshadowing, Kate announces that she wants to roar like that. In an equally heartbreaking soliloquy, Lance tells the audience about the horrific plight of the baby elephant, who had mistakenly relied on his human trainer to rescue him.
All three cast members are impeccable in their roles. Enver Gjokaj is marvelous as the bemused and somewhat unfocused filmmaker Jaap. Kyle Beltran as Lance excels in expressing his outrage about the demise of the baby elephant, and well as feelings of humiliation and personal confusion. The play’s center is Kate, perfectly performed by Rebecca Naomi Jones. She is ideal as the young woman who is exploring her passions and dreams. In the play’s most moving scene, she excels in emulating the anguished roar of the Black Prince.
Fire in Dreamland presented by The Public Theater, 425 Lafayette Street, through Sunday, August 5, 2018. By Rinne Groff. Directed by Marissa Wolf; scenic and costume design by Susan Hilferty; lighting design by Amith Chandrashaker; original music and sound design by Brendan Aanes.
Cast: Kyle Beltran, Enver Gjokaj, and Rebecca Naomi Jones.
Cover: Rebecca Naomi Jones and Enver Gjokaj in ‘Fire in Dreamland;’ photo: Joan Marcus.