‘Dinosaur’ Invites Audiences to Dig
With David Lynch-like moments of crossed realities, John Walch’s “The Dinosaur Within” wears influences from the film world on its sleeve. Yet the play, which Theater UCSB is presenting through the weekend, is not a frustrated screenplay. Instead, its numerous time-jumps and parallel narratives push what can be done with theater. By stripping down a convoluted story to a minimalist stage, Mr. Walch’s play manages to be complex yet comprehensible.
“The Dinosaur Within” opens with five characters in a tableau, like figures in a natural history museum. They are introduced by a sixth, 12-year-old Tommy (Ryan Lockwood), who addresses us from the podium of the Young Paleontologists Convention. He speaks of evolution, of adapting to survive, of excavating the past and understanding the present. Tommy is introducing the themes of the play, but it’s OK, since how these five characters are going to work out these themes is not apparent.
Eli (Carlos Peñuela), a construction worker in Hollywood and an Aborigine who emigrated from Australia, leaves behind a traditional father, Worru (Daniel Flores), and the memory of two deceased older brothers. He’s a wannabe actor and a fan of former movie star Honey Wells (Ansley Pierce), who now lives a secluded life in Beverly Hills. Her daughter, Maria (Heather Moiseve), a journalism school dropout, latches onto the newspaper story of some stolen dinosaur footprints, taken from tribal land in the outback.
A chance encounter with Eli makes her follow up the story with its writer, her old journalism professor Jerry (Brennan Kelleher). Rattled by the appearance of his dead son (Tommy, as seen in the introduction), he urges Maria to follow up on the story while he retires to his suburban home and begins to dig up the front porch. Tommy’s mysterious disappearance, we discover, was more than 10 years ago and took place in another state. Yet Jerry feels the need to dig.
Perhaps in a film, the numerous overlaps and coincidences would appear too forced, but Mr. Walch’s play feels closer to the interweaving melodies and motifs of a symphony, where a phrase in one section is repeated and extrapolated.
So Jerry, commanded by the ghost son to dig, begins to unearth remnants of the bike that Tommy was last seen riding. Just as improbably, Honey Wells begins to receive messages from her past self on a DVD delivered by her youngest fan, Eli. Yet as Eli digs in the ground under Hollywood, he starts to unearth clues to the younger Honey Wells.
Like David Lynch, who uses a higher plane of reality in his fictions to link earthbound tales, Mr. Walch uses Worru’s ties to the Aboriginal “Dreamtime,” a sort of metaphysical realm, to explain how all these threads connect.
Director Risa Brainin has assembled a solid cast for this production. No one actor stands out, but Mr. Peñuela’s Eli may elicit most of the sympathy, mostly from his innocent-abroad appeal.
The big surprise of the night was Alex Knox, who provides comic relief with a selection of spot-on characters. Usually cast as the straight man, Mr. Knox really lets rip. Brennan Kelleher gains believability as his character, Jerry, loses part of his sanity. Ansley Pierce’s Honey Wells is a bit too flouncy and brittle at times, but she earns her laughs.
Which brings up another notable element of the play: its confident switch between gut laughs and high emotion. Who expected such an experience at the beginning of summer, a time we reserve for brain-dead blockbusters, piffle and pabulum? “The Dinosaur Within” offers riches for those willing to dig.