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Wrenegades: Ecological adventure takes flight in new production at UCSD

Ecologist Ed Leopold’s life spirals downward when he fails to get his beloved coastal cactus wren on the Endangered Species List. He later discovers the will of the tiny bird is stronger than his self-loathing.

“’Wrenegades: An Ecological Adventure’ is inspired by the multitude of endangered species in San Diego and the conservationists trying to keep them from extinction,” said Katherine Harroff, artistic director of Circle Circle Dot Dot theater company.

Actor portrays endangered San Diego coastal cactus wren. Courtesy
Actor portrays endangered San Diego coastal cactus wren. Courtesy

“Our hero is a birder, played by co-writer Michael Nieto. He’s an ecologist and works in that world, in restoration and as a botanist. We met with biologists who are fighting for this little creature to create this production.”

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The enchanting and endangered world of San Diego wildlife provides a dramatic backdrop for a journey that invites viewers of all ages.

“You think of conservation in exotic foreign lands,” Nieto said, “and the rainforest, elephants, pandas, rhinos. They are all worthy of respect, but San Diego County has more endangered species than any other county in the continental United States. Biodiversity is San Diego’s big secret. We decided to tell the story of San Diego’s super rare and fragile biology, all hidden in plain sight.”

Nieto calls “Wrenegade” an action-packed tale of survival and salvation for all the creatures who make San Diego their home: our feisty people and our unique wildlife.

“The coastal cactus wren is in danger and is a survivor, against extreme odds,” Harroff said. “It can nest only in prickly pear or cholla cactus and it’s a terrible flyer.”

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The resident, non-migratory bird is trapped. Habitat loss, fragmentation and wild fire have made things worse. There are two worlds in “Wrenegades” — the human world with construction of a new hospital and the delicate eco-systems. The animal world is the adventure.

“Using puppetry, music and dance, we have animals tell the story,” said Harroff. “The gnat-catcher, another endangered bird, is the spiritual guide. It’s one of the first to stop the development. We use puppetry to help with scale. A heron carries a smaller bird to another location. Tiny fairy shrimp don’t read well on stage, so we have puppets in a vernal pool. Our wren hero travels, so we use shadow puppets to show that. She rides a whale.”

“Wrenegades” is Circle’s final production as company in residence at La Jolla Playhouse. Shows run May 31-June 19 at the Shank Theatre at UC San Diego. Performers include: Harroff, Nieto, Veronica Burgess, Soroya Rowley, Alexandra Slade and Justin Tuazon-Martin.

A teaching artist and performer, Harroff launched Circle Circle Dot Dot in 2011. She’s the queen of community-based theater, and plays about space travel, mall Santas and homelessness. Fans of Nieto will recognize him from “No Place Like Home” and “Bearded.”

Known for her potent yet understated craft, choreographer Anne Gehman provides key movement for the actors in “Wrenegade.”

“We directed ‘The Warriors Duet’ together, and her choreography was amazing,” Harroff said. “Anne knows how to have actors communicate. There’s a scene in ‘Wren’ that involves a freeway, and she uses dance in that energized and scary moment. On top of that, we are singing an original score that plays throughout. We create a magical animal world with bird and coyote costumes by Kristin McReddie. Everyone plays multiple roles, except for Ed and the wren.”

Harroff says “Wrenegade” is uplifting and filled with hope for survival. The good people who care make a difference. “Co-existence is our message,” Harroff said. “Let’s grow more conscious of the beauty in our world. Yes, hospitals and apartments must be built, but at what cost? How do we co-exist? We show the human and animal world — a man cares and a bird needs help.”

If you go: “Wrenegades: An Ecological Adventure” plays mornings, evenings and matinees May 31 to June 19 at Theodore and Adele Shank Theatre, UCSD campus. Previews: $10. Opening night: $25. Adult: $20. Student/ Senior/Military: $15. circle2dot2.com

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