The Dinosaur Within
Also see Sharon's review of Monkey Adored
It is, at root, the story of six seemingly unrelated individuals: a boy giving a speech at a Junior Paleontology conference; an Australian Aboriginal man who believes he is under a curse; a young woman ripping through newspapers; a man who can't sleep; a construction worker obsessed with old Hollywood; and an old woman in a wheelchair. Finding out how these characters' paths are ultimately related is the hook that attempts to draw you into their story.
The boy, for instance, is the son of the man who can't sleep. The reason for his sleepless nights is revealed right around the time we also learn that he once wrote a newspaper article which grabbed the attention of the young woman. She, in turn, had a chance meeting with the construction worker, who is the son of the Aboriginal man ... and so forth. Once you figure out who everyone is, the play boils down to three stories: a parent unable to cope with the death of a child; a parent whose child has left him and his culture; and a parent who has been keeping a very big secret from a child.
The play also has mystical elements. It takes place partially in "The Dreamtime." The Aboriginal man gives a sort of explanation for what this place is, but, basically, we're in a universe where the usual rules of time and space don't apply. The boy also gives a sort of scientific explanation for this. One of the biggest problems with the production at the Theatre @ Boston Court is that the boy and the Aboriginal man both have the most explanatory dialogue, and the actors playing these characters seem the least comfortable with it. As for the Aboriginal man, actor VJ Kesh may be making a choice to emphasize that this man is not a native English speaker, and is awkwardly trying to convey difficult concepts in a language not made for them. In any event, the production would be better served if the actors playing both characters were able to convey their explanations more clearly and convincingly.
But the ultimate problems with the production are with the play itself. (And here, I must unfortunately break my rule about not discussing anything in the second act.) Even allowing for bizarre mystical goings-on that enable someone to travel from California to Australia instantly and without need for a plane, or that enable a fading actress to converse with a filmed version of her younger self, there are still things that are so unbelievable they are simply impossible to accept. Perhaps the most problematic is the idea that it could be known, at the time of the pregnancy that an unborn biracial child would ultimately be able to "pass" as white. Don't get me wrong, this isn't an issue of color-blind casting. Instead, a key plot point turns on a decision being made to lie about the unborn child's non-white parentage when, in fact, one might have assumed that the lie would have been proven untrue the moment the child was born. I found it very difficult to connect with what was supposed to be an emotionally draining scene when my mind was screaming, "How could you possibly know the child would look white?!"
The writing also loses effect by repetition. Early in the play, we learn that two characters (whom we've never met) died by committing suicide. As the play continues, we learn of two more suicides. There's a point of diminishing returns with this particular dramatic device, and if The Dinosaur Within doesn't pass it, it comes dangerously close. Also overused is when one character says they "can't" do something, and is given, in reply, an apparently significant, "can't or won't?"
There's some good stuff in here, too. Some individual lines hit surprisingly well, such as when the boy tells us that since dinosaurs evolved into birds, they really aren't extinct. The bits of comedy scattered throughout are also effective. When the aging movie star rejects her agent's offer to do an osteoporosis PSA on the ground that she won't be a "poster crone," it gets a good laugh. Ultimately, though, the play, as a complete construct, just doesn't hold together. I find myself wanting to give the play its own advice: sometimes, it is necessary to further evolve in order to avoid extinction.
The Dinosaur Within runs at the Theatre @ Boston Court in Pasadena through November 6, 2011. For tickets and information, see www.bostoncourt.org.
The Theatre @ Boston Court – Artistic Directors Jessica Kubzansky & Michael Michetti; Executive Director Michael Seel – presents The Dinosaur Within by John Walch. Directed by Michael Michetti. Scenic Design Francois-Pierre Couture; Lighting Design Jeremy Pivnick; Original Music & Sound Design Bruno Louchouarn; Costume Design Leah Piehl; Projection Design Jason H. Thompson; Prop Design Nick Santiago; Dialect Coach Tracy Winters & Tuffet Schmelzle; Assistant Director June Carryl; Production Stage Manager Nicole Rossi; Casting Director Michael Donovan, CSA; Key Art Christopher Komuro.