Review #2 of 2: FIRE IN DREAMLAND by Filigree Theatre
by Justin M. West
The venue looked vaguely like an aircraft carrier on the inside, with a marked but not unpleasant chill in the air. Hot cocoa and tea on offer and heaters strategically placed about the space kept us comfortable. A subtle suggestion via email before the show to bundle up didn’t hurt, either. Decidedly aircraft-free, Factory on Fifth is home to Filigree Theatre’s Fire in Dreamland, which began its two-week run last Thursday. The acquired taste of the venue’s charming kitsch exemplifies the kinds of offbeat venues that Austin creators have become adept at transforming.
The relative shortage of more traditional proscenium or black box stages has in a way been a boon to the scene, inspiring creativity and originality that might not otherwise have been front of mind. Sometimes, as here with Alison Lewis' gorgeous set design, the transformation creates a rather otherworldly atmosphere.
Sheer fabric weaves a path across the ceiling and falls in sheets to the rear of the stage, blurring a series of gears that suggest that time is of the essence. That complex but not overcomplicated message adds a dreamlike quality that serves well the not-quite-linear-at-all storytelling. Our minds are in the right place before the first sounds cry out.
I’m going to break the “critic mode” for a moment to ask a very important question: Where the hell has Kathleen Fletcher been?! Her first moments on stage aren’t spoken, they're heaved, her body wrenching to the floor in a pile as the wail fills the entire space. As quickly as she hit the floor, she’s back on her feet, dry-eyed and chipper. This woman has a screw loose, I think to myself. Fletcher is phenomenal in her performance as something of a manic pixie dream girl with both a creative streak and a severe, untreated attachment disorder. The program says Fletcher has been performing in New York for 12 years, and I can promise you that NYC isn't happy about her absence.
Opposite Fletcher, Brough Hansen as Jaap is the perfect counterpart. It's clear from his first moments on stage this is a match made in hell. Jaap is dredged up as if from the sea, some kind of cosmic nightmare, half barefoot and fully professing his hatred of children. When Kate echoes this universally mistrust-inducing opinion, limerence sinks its teeth into the both of them. The kind of love that only the actively infected don’t regret sets into motion.
Is Jaap German? I wrote in my notes. I still don’t know, and I was far too fussed about making a quick exit with my beautiful date to hang around and ask. Apologies, cast and crew—priorities, y’know! Regardless, while I couldn’t exactly place Jaap’s place of origin, Hansen breathes enthusiastic, manic life into the character. He’s singularly focused on an objectively bad idea, so much so that his poor judgment becomes infectious and blinds Kate to just how shitty a boyfriend he is. Almost.
There are subtleties in both Hansen and Fletcher’s performances that, layered upon their characters’ frenzied obsessions, offer a satisfying contrast to the surreal storytelling and aethereal set design. Kate notices Jaap's bullshit, almost says something, can't even complete her thought before Jaap distracts her with a well-timed love bomb.
Kate finally does lose it, her pent-up frustration bursting forth in what would be an overreaction if it wasn't rooted in untold years of Jaap's bullshit, he shrugs it off and doesn’t seem to give much of a shit. That's precisely what assholes like him do. These two balance their romance on a high tension wire that's fraying at the edges on an accelerated timeline, but they're still decidedly human when conflict plucks the strings.
Amidst the swirling emotions of anxious-attached codependency, enter Allen Porterie as Lance, a character who doesn’t realize he’s the sanest person in the room. Lance is withdrawn to a fault and smarter than he lets on, but he isn’t afraid to speak up and call it like he sees it. Porterie has the chops to steal any scene, but he wisely chooses a measured, assertive approach as our proxy, reflecting our own attempts to make sense of what, precisely, the fuck? Lance is not without his own hangups, and Porterie's deft performance keeps them at bay until they - and Lance - demand to be heard.
Director Elizabeth Newman having inspired such brilliant performances is all the more impressive by how well those performances mask the script's inherent flaws. The central theme of the show, a 1911 Coney Island fire, feels like a McGuffin. The non-linear elements are jarring and incessant but add little in the way of depth to the overall narrative. Great performances aside, the core motivations of the characters are something of an enigma. While there is catharsis to be found, the main takeaways for me were that I’m glad, very glad, I'm not in my 20's anymore, and the reminder to never (again) shack up with a narcissist with delusions of grandeur. Or an unmedicated crazy person who will quit a job to work on a bad movie with no money.
But. It sits on you. As I have written this piece and pondered the show over the last few days, the flaws feel insignificant. In retrospect, Fire in Dreamland feels like a snapshot in time. A return to the emotional and financial instability that only the unique hormonal alchemy of youth can render into a feeling of invincibility. Life lessons learned only after the fact, with the story seen through a different lens, leave you feeling as if you missed the point. It was a ride the whole time, not a race. You could have seen it for what it was if you weren't trying so damn hard to do so.
I'm thankful the show wasn't really a time machine and I'm still comfortable here in my waning thirties deciding what I'll be when I grow up. I would still like to make that movie someday. If only I had an idea, the passion to get it done, and a partner who believed in me. That'd be a terrible thing to waste.
I'm looking at you, Jaap. Idiot.
Fire in Dreamland
by Rinne Groff
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)
Purchase tickets through Eventbrite HERE