There’s so much great free art in this town. Smithsonian’s out the wazoo. Free performing arts are a little tougher to find, with one of the major providers being the good people of The Kennedy Center. This fall, The Kennedy Center and the U.S. Botanic Garden have crossed creative streams, producing two new flora-themed plays for young audiences: Flowers Stink and it’s twin The Cerulean Time Capsule. One hopes it’s the start of a fruitful relationship.
Tasked with commissioning a new musical, the The Kennedy Center was wise to turn to some of the talent behind fantastic local rockabilly musical company Dizzy Miss Lizzy’s Roadside Review. Debra Buonaccorsi and Stephen McWilliams have crafted a cute, if low-impact, musical about a young city girl who has never felt a personal connection to the natural world.
Young Acacia (Sakile Lyles), assigned to write a poem about nature as her English homework, is having trouble finding inspiration. She’s soon visited by two “magical plant beings” who have grown frustrated with humanity’s indifferent treatment of the natural world and want Acacia to help them spread a love of all things floral and faunal to her fellow students.
Maggie Donnelly and Jonathan Feuer are perfectly fun as the plants. The songs are all very kid-style Dizzy Miss Lizzie, a blend of folk and alt-country, with the actors gamely playing their own guitars, tambourines and ukuleles. Dialogue is peppered with jaunty tech speak. “Hashtag” may be said more often that “flower”. The lyrics themselves tend a little dry, though, Buonaccorsi and McWilliams are much more at home in the mythology and religious allegory inspiration of much of their earlier work than they are in botany. A lot of the songs boil down to lists of animals and plants in various regions, with a little poetic flourish. Lyles brings a nice youthful energy as Acacia, bringing equal energy to the character’s adolescent grumpiness and growing enthusiasm for the natural world.
Set and costume designer Colin Ranney has crafted a lovely addition to the U.S. Botanic Garden’s outdoor Amphitheatre stage, with platforms of fresh flower-adorned wood that lend a nice smellscape and feel like a truly (pun intended) organic extension of the space. His costumes for the living plants are a highlight as well, especially Feuer’s, who’s walking-talking tree looks a bit like Hipster Groot. Some costume pieces might even bit a bit too organic, as several times I noticed bees attempting to pollinate Donnelly’s floral bonnet. Ranney should accept the endorsement from Mother Nature.
September 23 – October 24, 2015
at the U.S. Botanic Garden
100 Maryland Ave SW
Washington, DC 20024
45 minutes, no intermission
The environment itself is often the star here. It was a wonderful idea to stage Flowers Stink in the outdoor amphitheatre and the piece is at its most visually engaging when the cast is allowed to wander in and out of the area a bit. Frustratingly, there was very little interaction or direct engagement with the children in the audience, which to me would seem an important element if the idea is to get kids passionate about science and nature. During the brief periods when the cast was free to engage, the kids lit up.
As lovely as environmental staging can be, some bad weather luck exposed a couple of technical weaknesses. Much of the expository information in the show is delivered through some fairly generic posters with animals and plants from the various regions from the songs, mounted on rollers at the top of the set. Unfortunately, some unexpected winds picked up just as the show started, and the posters spent much of show being whipped around to the point of nearly breaking. The actors were even unable to roll a couple of them back up. I would suggest some sort of mounting at the bottom to keep them in place.
The whole shebang zips by in a quick, perfectly pleasant 45 minutes and will make for a nice diversion for families already down on the Mall. In its current form, Flowers Stink is a wonderful idea in need of further development and more direct engagement with its target audiences. The seeds of a great new piece are all there, and with a little love, they’ll blossom in time.
Flowers Stink, music and lyrics by Debra Buonaccorsi and Stephen McWilliams . Directed by Gregg Henry . Featuring Maggie Donnelly, Jonathan Feuer, and Sakile Lyles . Set and costume design by Colin Ranney. Sound design by Thomas Sowers. A co-production of the Kennedy Center and the U.S. Botanic Garden . Reviewed by Ryan Taylor.