From 1904-1911, Dreamland reigned as the third and most elaborate amusement park on Coney Island after Steeplechase Park and Luna Park. At 15 acres, utilizing one million light bulbs and eye-catching architectural design, it featured rides, dramatic spectacles, concessions; a railroad, Venetian canals, and a “Trained Wild Animal Arena.” Dreamland was considered the more high class of the three.
Dreamland Tower 1907 – Public Domain
In May 1911, undergoing repairs that required caulking, the ride Hell Gate burst into flames when a bucket of tar was kicked over in the dark during an electrical malfunction. Fire spread through the highly flammable park killing 60 animals. A lion named Black Prince rushed into the streets, among crowds of gawkers, and was shot by police. The park was never rebuilt.
Having just run a city government event for kids, Kate (Rebecca Naomi Jones) is on the boardwalk of Coney Island. She’s crying. Except for general discontent we never really learn why. Clack! (The sound of a movie production slate.) “There was this movie about a devastating fire right here on Coney Island…” She speaks directly TO us. “If I could I would show you the movie…” She’s irresistible. Clack.
Enver Gjokaj and Rebecca Naomi Jones
Jaap Hooft (Enver Gjokaj) approaches, a shoe in one hand, his cell phone in the other. The young Eastern European was recording the ocean when his phone fell in. He tells Kate she has “shit” on her face. By the time he wipes away what turns out to be mascara, the two are deep in conversation. Jaap is trying to get a visa through affiliation with The New York Film School in order to create a movie about the Dreamland fire. “It’s all about the animals!” Clack!
Next thing we know, days have passed. The new couple is in bed. Clack! Jaap has just related the story of his film. Clack! Kate is deeply excited by its possibilities. Her mundane job has nothing on this. It’s the middle of the night. He goes out for licorice. (?!) Clack! She takes phone messages for him. He ostensibly returns days later to show her film shot at the zoo. It actually looks as if the lion is running away from something. The fire will be CGI. “How did you DO that?!” Kate exclaims.
Rebecca Naomi Jones and Enver Gjokaj
We watch the relationship evolve with Kate so enamored of tapping into her own creativity and helping her now live in boyfriend she quits her job and begins to research and liaise with the community on behalf of the incipient film. Intermittently a celluloid scenario is described – bathed in light, accompanied by sound track. A force of nature, her enthusiasm, practicality and charm just might get something done were Jaap not so resistant to putting things on paper. (Add lots of Clacks.) Still, love blooms.
The only other character is Lance (Kyle Beltran), a student at the Academy through whose auspices Jaap has secured a professional camera. (Up till his entrance, he wields the slate.) Awkward, but smarter than he looks, he arrives at Kate’s in search of the filmmaker. Information he lets drop about his friend is, to say the least, startling. Everything shifts.
Rebecca Naomi Jones and Kyle Beltram
This is an imaginative story. (Wait till you hear about the closet.) Having one foot in the past and one in the present works wonderfully. Playwright Rinne Groff’s creates credible characters and relationships. Sequences of unseen movie are compelling. If only that damn slate were not clacking its way through the piece, apparently without reason.
Were the slate employed to separate reality from fantasy/actual life from the evolving film or internal from external conversation, it would make sense. As it stands, however, there are so many unnecessary time shifts the piece feels jerky and often briefly confusing. This is a pity. The Public Theater has mounted an excellent production.
Dreamland’s Trained Wild Animal Arena 1911 – Public Domain
The terrific Rebecca Naomi Jones is a bright light; sympathetic, believable, fully Kate in her body and spirit. Jones listens and responds. We watch thoughts and feelings percolate. Emotions feel immediate. When she addresses us directly, the audience leans towards her as if magnetized. An uninhibited denouement is vibrant.
Enver Gjokaj is attractive. Playing Jaap as low key, except for singular professional passion, lets us believe he takes his appearance for granted in service of ambition. The actor deals with his character’s language difficulties utilizing skilled start/stop of phrasing and accent.
Kyle Beltran offers a quirky, unsure Lance with moments of delightful humor.
Director Marissa Wolf is adroit with emotional timing. Utilization of space is visually appealing and theatrically accessible to all seats. Transitions are fluid.
Scenic Design by Susan Hilferty stimulates imagination rather than depicting the sea or bricks and mortar. Her Costume Design is apt- mermaids are swell. Amith Chandrashaker’s Lighting Design and Brendan Aanes’ Original Music and Sound Design add immeasurably to conjuring.
Photos by Joan Marcus
Opening: Rebecca Naomi Jones and Enver Gjokaj
Fire in Dreamland by Rinne Groff
Directed by Marissa Wolf
The Public Theater
425 Lafayette Street
Through August 5, 2018