Berwyn’s 16th Street Theater has built a solid reputation on showcasing cutting-edge, socially-conscious material in solidly directed and performed productions. Their new show, Koalas by J. Joseph Cox, is typically well-paced and acted. In this world-premiere play, the plot is a bit too overloaded with conflicts and none of them are explored or developed in enough depth. It’s a fascinating tale in many ways, with a talking koala adding insight periodically, but the human characters are stereotypes and we’re never sure whose story this is.
Nonetheless, director Josh Sobel keeps the pace tight and the fine ensemble work of the five actors is excellent.
Thelonius, or Theo, a koala, has escaped from a California zoo in 1999, just as the century is ready to turn. Played by Esteban Andres Cruz, this marsupial’s got personality and attitude. Often nibbling on the leaves of his chosen tree, he’s delightful, yet a tad ferocious and intimidating, too. He’s a loner who decides to live in a leafy eucalyptus tree in a suburban backyard belonging to Ray (Eddie Dzialo), an often angry, divorced veteran of Desert Storm whose 10-year-old daughter Natalie is coming to visit.
Ray’s unemployed brother, a geology major named John (Michael Holding), moves in unannounced. He’s a likeable but irresponsible guy who connects with Natalie, played by Leo Sharkey, who is very gender nonconforming. The two are like playmates, gobbling Captain Crunch and going on insect-searching safaris in the yard.
Sharkey is a very fine young actor, convincingly portraying both Nate/Natalie and in flashbacks, Ray as a young kid. Natalie now prefers being called Nate and has gotten into difficulty with the whole gender issue situation at her school. Her father, Ray, has considerable difficulty with all this and throws away all her boy-oriented toys and videos. He will not tolerate his child identifying as a boy. But Nate denies she’s a girl.
John, the younger brother, is sympathetic to the child, which annoys Ray more than usual. John also becomes friends with Gabby (played by Michele DiMaso), who lives next door and may be a lesbian. Gabby is currently memorizing the number codes for all the fruits and vegetables at the grocery store where she works so she can get a promotion. She and volatile Ray have an occasionally strained relationship, but they usually work out their conflicts.
Ray is complicated. It’s 1999 but he still uses a manual typewriter instead of a computer. He won the Purple Heart fighting in the Persian Gulf but clearly has some post-traumatic stress issues. He faces an assortment of challenges. Perhaps Ray is about to lose his visitation rights with his child. He spends much of the play carrying around and tinkering with a rifle. Is he a time bomb who will eventually explode?
Theo the koala is clearly a metaphor, but of what? Is he simply another defiant and territorial creature like Ray?
Jose Manuel Diaz Soto did the fine scenic design. We see part of Ray’s house, which somewhat resembles a cage at the zoo. There is also a large plaque downstage center, like one might find identifying an animal resident at the zoo, but I was sitting in row 3 on the aisle and could not make it out. We also see part of the backyard with a chaise lounge and the large leafy tree in which Theo resides.
The original music and sound design by Mike Przygoda is particularly well done. The sounds of sirens, cicadas singing, dogs barking, and other noises seem particularly crisp and realistic.
Koalas by J. Joseph Cox is both fascinating and frustrating. It seems quite unique in many ways and also pretty familiar.
“Koalas” runs through Oct. 27, Thursdays and Fridays, 7:30 p.m.; Saturdays, 4 and 8 p.m.; and Sunday, Oct. 21, 3 p.m. $22; $18, blue star (military/veteran) families, low-income and Berwyn residents. Tickets: 708-795-6704 x107, 16thstreettheater.org. 6420 16th St., Berwyn.