Big Boned

The Dinosaur Within

At UCSB’s Hatlen Theatre, Saturday, May 27. Runs through June 3.

Reviewed by Karen Leigh

The Dinosaur Within, Theatre UCSB’s spring mainstage play, is a beautifully acted, creatively staged, don’t-miss-it hit. The action shifts between the Australian outback and Los Angeles, darts between different time periods, and even sets certain scenes in an alternate-universe “dream” state. It’s thus a difficult piece to stage, but director Risa Brainin ingeniously employs light, sound effects, and music to convey the abrupt switches. It doesn’t hurt that she’s aided by a group of talented student actors. There’s not a weak link in the bunch.

With Dinosaur, writer John Walch has brought to life a group of eclectic, varied characters. They’re all haunted by the past and spend the length of the play searching for remnants — fossils — with which to put the pieces of their lives back together. There’s the journalist who is continuously accosted by the ghostly specter of his dead son; Honey Wells, the aging Hollywood movie star forced to watch painful episodes from her past; and an Australian construction worker haunted by the suicides of his father and brother. Each story is connected via a network of secondary characters and younger versions of the main character’s selves. It’s a complicated web, but Brainin and her team avoid any confusion.

Walch’s words are acted by a gifted group of students. Young Ansley Pierce is believable as the crotchety old actress, and Amy Gumenick brings glamour to the proceedings, portraying the character in her younger years. Carlos Peñuela pulls double-duty, embodying both an Australian concrete worker and an ordinary parking attendant who romances Honey back in the 1940s. As the grieving father, Brennan Kelleher conveys sorrow without resorting to melodramatics. His pain? We feel it. Also making a splash are the versatile Alex Knox and Alexa Kahn, who play several roles apiece. In Knox’s case, it’s his goateed acting school director who steals the show — a tough feat in such talented company.

The scenic design takes us from Aussie bush country to Old Hollywood without so much as a pause. There’s a cool office set that flies on and off stage, backgrounds of forest trees, and trapdoor entrances galore. The sets lend a constant busy-ness to the proceedings. There’s never a dull moment.

If you value contemporary theater and the success of new plays — Dinosaur is a rather recent work — run, don’t walk, to see this show. Even those who are themselves dinosaurs within will enjoy it.

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