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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