A YA paranormal romance author accidentally inspires a dangerous dragon cult.
For our final FringeNYC review, we take on Dragon's Breath, a new play by Michael C. O'Day about Justine Drake, a Young Adult paranormal romance author who is struggling to get her new e-book series into print. As she and publicist Byron work to spread her name, however, it attracts the attentions of both virulent supporters and vicious haters, eventually spinning out of control to inspire a religious cult inspired by her books.
The YA Fantasy World
Justine Drake is an ordinary suburban middle-aged woman, with a presence that reminds me a lot of E. L. James, the author of the Fifty Shades of Gray books. Much like James, Justine is an unassuming figure who happens to have an active imagination and the desire to write wish-fulfillment romance novels. For the new author, her greatest desire is to see her books as physical books, rather than just a file stored in the tablet she carries around with her throughout the play.
Dragon's Breath references other fantasy novels often, from The Hunger Games to Anne McCaffrey, helping to establish the literary world Justine has entered without distracting from the overall story. Where the play shines is in its illuminating new look at a stage of the writer's journey not often seen in plays and movies--not the initial inspiration or the wild successes of publication, but the in-between phase, when the book has a publisher but there is still much to do before Justine can really consider herself an "author." Her struggles to represent herself well in publicity events and to fight against negative online reviews, all while romanticizing the way things used to be before e-books, are a compelling tale for any reader.
The People of the Dragon
And of course, there is the absurd cast of characters she encounters in the process. While Christopher Michael McLamb as cocky, self-assured publicist Byron forms an excellent counterpart to Lorinda Lisitza's jittery but passionate Justine, the true energy of the play comes from Dragon's Breath's most dedicated fan and its most passionate detractor. Hannah Sloat plays Laura's descent from innocent and bullied dragon lover to strong and confident but deluded cult leader to perfection, and Rocco (played by the playwright himself) is an absolutely fantastic character, with an extensive mental bibliography of dragon lore and need to insert himself into every conversation that cannot help but have you cheering, even as he ruins everything for Justine.
The rest of the characters in the play are portrayed by an ensemble of three, which could definitely stand to be larger to better depict the size of Justine Drake's growing following. Meanwhile, if this play is supposed to really be about the dragon cult, then there is far too slow of a build in the story to get to that point. The best part of this final section of Dragon's Breath is definitely the beautifully elaborate costumes of the "religious" leaders, but I'm not sure I ever really believed in the strength or the dedication of the rival cults, or even what the difference between the two was.
Ultimately, what makes this play innovative and worthwhile are the questions it asks about writing in the digital age: in the new world of crowdfunding and anonymous Internet reviews, who really owns stories? Justine Drake's struggle to become an established author without losing control over the stories she wrote is the heart of the play, and anyone who has ever tried to write a novel can sympathize with her plight. Dragon's Breath may not have accomplished everything it aimed to do, but it is still an engaging, entertaining play for readers and writers alike.
Dragon's Breath plays as part of the New York International Fringe Festival at Teatro Latea at the Clemente. Its final performance is Saturday, August 23 at 7pm.