Not all the characters in Archie Washington’s enchanting new musical Living Things are, strictly speaking, alive. Carnival bowling pins that get knocked over and set back up again over and over; components of a science fair rocket; a robot Mars lander and its orbital companion; a decommissioned rocking horse in a doomed shopping mall— all have speaking roles in this charming six-episode anthology, as do other creatures not generally understood by humans to be conversational: a fly, a moth, a butterfly, a potted plant.
Yet in Washington’s unbounded imagination, all those objects, animate and otherwise, have something to say, and plenty to feel. Even in the preliminary version showcased last month at Portland’s Fertile Ground Festival, Living Things magically takes us back to when we were kids and we imagined what everything around us— animals, plants, toys— might be saying or thinking or feeling. Some of us still do that, even after we’ve grown up, though not as often as we probably should.
A moth unexpectedly finds himself attracted to an injured butterfly, even though he can’t quite figure out what she is. “It’s Always the Pretty Ones,” sings the horny moth’s friend, warning him against getting too close, but he can’t help it.
That story’s resolution needs a little more action to believably motivate the moth’s final act of generosity, and in a later episode, I had trouble understanding the carnival bowling pins’ escape plan. Most of the episodes could stand a bit of trimming (none run longer than about 10 minutes or so), especially a short-lived housefly’s near-monologue— the most melancholy and least successful of the lot. Yet despite such minor blemishes, I was captivated by their stories, and I wanted these animate objects to achieve their goals —that’s the magic Washington imbued in them.
Entertainingly directed and inventively blocked by director Evan Tait, even in Hipbone Studio’s raw space with no costumes and almost no props, the show is so tightly acted and crafted that our imaginations have an easy time filling in the blanks. The folky keyboard and percussion music by Curtis Settino and Courtney Rainwater, performed by Settino and Steve Goodwin, caught the stories’ whimsical tone. A full production, with costumes, lighting cues, props et al, would make each episode even easier for kids to comprehend earlier on.
The final episode featuring all five actors drew the loudest laughs and widest smiles. Each actor wonderfully characterized various components of a rocket entered into a science fair launch (including one unexpected passenger). Even the announcer got the biggest laughs, thanks to Jenna Yokoyama’s hilariously bored portrayal. In fact, here and in other PDX Playwrights productions, the acting was superlative— not necessarily what you expect in a play-development festival.
My wise companion pointed out that an underlying theme of each segment is existentialism. But it’s not rendered in an overt or academic way that calls attention to itself, not even the Godot-ish segment involving a pair of space probes waiting for instructions from their creators. The kiddos probably won’t notice, but the rest of us will come away not only charmed by these living things and their creator, but also with a slightly melancholy reminder that life, however brief, is what we make of it. Even if we’re a bowling pin.
Of everything I saw at this year’s Fertile Ground, Washington’s Living Things seemed one of the most fully realized, the readiest for a— make that many— full productions, and the likeliest to appeal to broad audience of many ages, maybe like Imago Theatre’s Frogz fandom. Not surprising: he’s been developing the show for a decade now, and it feels honed, not overcooked. And yet, the writer still commendably sought audience feedback at this performance, providing an anonymous online feedback method I wish other writers and directors would use. I hope some producers will seize the opportunity soon— and uses as many members of this excellent cast as possible.
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