A scene from "Wrenegrades" by Circle Circle dot dot.
A scene from “Wrenegrades” by Circle Circle dot dot.

By Pat Launer

Did you know that a coastal cactus wren can’t fly? Me neither. That’s one of many factoids we learn about local flora, fauna and endangered species in “Wrenegades: An Ecological Adventure,” the latest premiere creation of Circle Circle dot dot, penned by Katherine Harroff and Michael Nieto.

C2d2, as it’s familiarly known, is completing its fourth season of productions (14 in total) and its one-year residency at the La Jolla Playhouse. The company collaboratively creates new work from stories gathered in and around our community.

This time, it’s all about the environment, and biologists vs. developers. Though we’ve heard many of those arguments before, this time, we get to hear from the poor threatened creatures themselves.

A game and malleable cast of six (who also has created most of the design elements) inhabits some 18 characters, from the titular wren to a gray whale, from a smarmy, materialistic TV field reporter to a downy gnatcatcher. And there’s dogged, no-nonsense Natalie, who doesn’t believe in the “theory of climate change” and is just trying to get a children’s hospital built on a piece of local land. She hires a hapless naturalist to sign off on the deal, so the project doesn’t get hamstrung by the Department of Fish and Wildlife. Meanwhile, the young wren (adorable Alexandra Slade), in trying to find a new home for her family, makes a long journey with the help of helpful (if endangered) animal friends.

The play gets off to a shaky start with a didactic lecture by the almost-Ph.D. biologist, Ed (credible Nieto), who has devoted his inconstant career to getting the cactus wren on the Endangered Species List. But since the wren is not as cute as the fluffy and telegenic gnatcatcher, the plain little bird keeps getting sidelined. The presentation, filled with info tidbits, like the fact that San Diego has more habitats, plants and endangered species than any other county in the U.S., and more than most states, does go on, even with its laughable, old-school, cockeyed overhead projections (“Grant ran out; no PowerPoint,” Ed says). One of his more graphically simplistic illustrations says “Cacti + Fire = Dead Wren.”

The first act leans toward the silly, and decidedly resembles a sometimes-dry edu-tainment for children (a school tour is a stated desire in the program’s Director’s Notes), though it does introduce the wonderfully creative animal puppets and costumes (Shaun Tuazon-Martin is Puppet Design Advisor; Kristin McReddie is the ingenious costume designer).

The second act picks up steam, with increasing action, conflict and character development. Under the direction of Patrick Kelly, each actor gets to shine: Justin Tuazon-Martin is hilarious as the dim-witted, food-obsessed Mexican-accented Coyote; Harroff is believable as Natalie and has a nasty, self-aggrandizing attitude as the Gnatcatcher; Soroya Rowley is stately as a Torrey Pine, and sort of Scottish-Irish-sounding as the voice of the giant Commander Gray (the gray whale). Veronica Burgess is a hoot as the clueless, plastic-wigged News Anchor. All three women charm as the voices of the chirpy Fairy Shrimp (cute little puppets emerging from a vernal pool).

The scenic design is simple but suggestive, the choreography (Anne Gehman) works well, and there’s music by Andrew Steele and Michael Nieto. The overall impression is of a sweet, playful and informative new production that is loaded with heart and excellent intentions. With trimming, it’d be perfect for schoolkids, especially given those imaginative animal creations (the huge-winged and graceful Great Egret was my favorite). But adults will find plenty (including the clever, if groan-worthy puns), to savor, to learn and perhaps even to inspire them to action.

  • WRENEGADES: An Ecological Adventure” runs through June 19 at the Shank Theatre on the campus of UC San Diego
  • Performances are Wednesday-Saturday at 8 p.m., Sunday at 4 p.m.
  • Tickets ($15-$20) are available at 619-356-3682 or online at www.circle2dot2.com
  • Running time:  2 hrs.

Pat Launer is a long-time San Diego arts writer and an Emmy Award-winning theater critic. An archive of her previews and reviews can be found at www.patteproductions.com.