“Dinosaur footprints were stolen in the outback [in Australia],” says John Walch, explaining the genesis of the his The Dinosaur Within, opening tonight at the Boston Court.
“It’s an image I carried around for quite some time. What do you do when someone steals your creation myth? Something that’s so fundamental to your understanding of the world. It’s equivalent in other cultures to stealing something like Christ’s footprints. I wanted to bring those questions into a dramatic context.”
He wrote his otherworldly-but-still-in-this-world piece between 1999 and 2002. It won a grant from the Kennedy Center Fund for New American Plays, and it was partially developed at LA’s (now defunct)Â A.S.K. Theater Projects.
Michael Michetti, co-artistic director of the Theatre @ Boston Court (and current Ovation Award nominee), says that “one of our former literary managers had actually seen the play in a previous production in Austin, Texas, knew the playwright and connected us with him and the play. And we fell in love with it at just an in-house reading here at Boston Court.Â We’ve read other plays of John’s. He’s a wonderful writer and [we] love his work and his voice, so we were very excited to get to do this play.”
Walch briefly explains that the play is “a big story that crosses time and space. It brings Australian Aboriginal and Hollywood mythology together to a place where the Dreamtime and Dream Factory collide.”
Michetti offers more details.Â “It is about these seemingly unrelated stories that begin intersecting in surprising ways both in terms of the interaction of the characters and also in terms of the thematic resonance of one story against the other,” says Michetti. “Essentially, [there are] three different stories that intersect.”
As one can image, the three plot lines are vastly different. The first story is about an Aboriginal elder in Australia entrusted with a set of dinosaur footprints and the history of his community. But one day, the footprints disappear and, with it, his livelihood.
“He was the guardian of these footprints and they have been stolen from the earth,” says Michetti. “He believes that because he was the guardian and they’ve been taken away, [a] curse is now upon him and he is trying to get his son, Eli, to come back and help him find the footprints. Eli, in the meantime, has moved to Los Angeles to become a movie star.”
Back in Los Angeles, while father and son try to pick up the pieces, a fictitious and aging film star from the 1960s named Honey Wells deals with old memories that haunt her to this very day. She “has her footprints in the courtyard of Grauman’s but nobody knows who she is anymore,” Walch says.
Michetti adds, “she has a tape of the ceremony where she got her footprints in front of Grauman’s, that has been sent to her by her agent,” said Michetti. “It opens up for her the past that she had kind of long locked away and she begins having to confront some of the demons that made her career fall apart.”
Then there’s Jerry and Dolly, a married couple with a missing 12-year-old son. Tommy, the son, is the crux of the story. He shows up in unexpected ways.
“[He] appears as a character in a play and he kind of links things together thematically as he is presenting a lecture to the Mid-American Junior Paleontologist Annual Conference, where he is talking about the ‘saurs and the link between dinosaurs and birds,” Michetti laughs. “His theory [is] that in order to survive monumental change you either have to adapt or perish…So the play is about these people who all have something in their past that they have to go back and excavate in some way in order to move on from them.”
Or, as Walch explains it, “the play is about defining monumental loss. All the central characters are struggling with a hole in the center they are trying to fill.”
This sounds almost identical to a description of Walch’s work from former Center Theatre Group producing director Robert Egan a decade ago, when CTG produced Walch’s The Circumference of a Squirrel in its New Work Festival, at what was then the Actors’ Gang theater (now the Open Fist) in Hollywood. In an interview in the LA Times, Egan said that Walch “meditates on the voids we all have in our lives and asks how does one go about filling them.”
Michetti, who is also directing the production, likes the play’s balance between what’s just beyond one’s reach and what’s right in front of one’s face.
“One of the reasons I love this play,” Michetti says, “is that it’s dealing with really big themes and ideas, which I love exploring and I think are very universal. And the stories themselves are all very accessible stories. They are all very human stories that I think are extremely relatable to an audience. But he tells it in a way that has a kind of theatricality in its style, and structure, and its exploration of these big themes.”
“It is very much in the model of the Boston Court sensibility and [is] a big part of why we feel in love with it. It’s a play that on the one hand is very approachable and identifiable because of its familiar themes and characteristics and situations, and yet on the other hand it’s almost epic in its theatricality and the style [with] which he chooses to tell it.”
The themes aren’t the only thing that make this show big. The technical aspect of production is considerable, making projects such as set design a feat.
“There’s a large, expansive set that allows us to be in multiple locations,” Michetti continues. “Sometimes up to five simultaneously. Our set designer Francois-Pierre Couture has created a scenic design that’s inspired in parts by dioramas, archeological digs, and museum displays, which allows us to be intimate where necessary and expansive when the play requires it,” said Michetti. “There is also a very intricate video design by Jason Thompson, including a filmed sequence replicating a ceremony of the fictitious Honey Wells putting her footprints in cement at Grauman’s Chinese Theatre, that acts in startlingly interactive ways with the actors and also helps establish the various locations.”
The production team also includes Boston Court veteran and currently Ovation-nominated lighting designer Jeremy Pivnick, sound guru Bruno Louchouarn, costumes by Leah Piehl as well as original music also by Louchouarn. This production features the acting of Shauna Bloom, Mimi Cozzens, Nic Few, VJ Kesh, Emily Kosloski, Chuck McCollum, Ari Skye, Scott Alan Smith and Rebecca Tilney.
Besides the scale of the show, the other challenge was the rewriting process, which took place through to the week of the performance. But according to Michetti, it’s worth the work.
Walch “has been involved with us throughout the process. He is now here in Los Angeles and was here to see some previews just last weekend and we had a series of rewrites that went in less than a week ago, which is great because even though the play had productions before, John is still working on it and finding new things to adjust,” said Michetti. “So, that’s an exciting part of the process but, of course, always a challenge as well because there comes a point where we all become an advocate for the words that currently exist in the play. Then suddenly being told, ‘no, you need to become the advocate for a whole new set of words.’ So it’s a challenge not only to just learn the lines and integrate [them] but to find how this new text integrates with the other text and creates a part of the seamless character arcs. That’s been a fun and exciting challenge.”
The now NYC-based Walch says he’s really valued his experience working withÂ Michetti. “Michael is incredibly astute and brought a keen eye to the play.Â There were a few suggestions he made that were really smart, so I did some re-writing for this production that clarified some back story. Sometimes you writeÂ something in the heat of the moment for another production that looks differentÂ when you revisit it in the next.”
“I’m thrilled to be having it staged at Boston Court, who has a very good reputationÂ in the new play circles,” Walch says. “It’s such an LA story.”
The Dinosaur Within, presented by the Theatre @ Boston Court. Opens Oct. 8. Plays Boston Court Performing Arts Center, 70 North Mentor Avenue, Pasadena. Thurs-Sat at 8 pm; Sun at 2 pm, through August 21. Tickets: $32, $27 students & seniors. Visit www.bostoncourt.org or call the box office at 626-683-6883.
***All The Dinosaur Within production photos by Ed Krieger