Espressivo! Chamber Theatre’s latest production has all the elements of a 1960s creature feature: a beautiful scientist, an ironjawed government agent, and a race of highly intelligent plant people.
“The Botanical Engineers,” directed by company co-founders David Hance and Devin Wallace, combines a B-movie plot with a powerful environmental message. The musical comedy kicks off its countywide run with a performance Friday at the Red Barn in Los Osos; other locations include the Pewter Plough Playhouse in Cambria, Poalillo Vineyards in Paso Robles and the San Luis Obispo Botanical Garden.
Wallace originally wrote “The Botanical Engineers” as a 1991 radio play for National Public Radio’s NPR Playhouse.
While hiking along the Oregon coast, he discovered a marshy area populated by Darlingtonia californica — also know as the California pitcher plant or the cobra lily — carnivorous plants with an otherworldly appearance.
"‘What if that plant was a highly evolved, highly intelligent species?’ ” he wondered. “ ‘What if plants knew everything they need to do to restore the environment?’ ”
Narrated by Bert Jenkins (Jonathan Shadrach), the world’s first human-plant hybrid, the hourlong play follows researcher Dr. Eva Stomata (Toni Young) and her quest to usher in the eco-friendly Green Age with the help of Oxcerfyligoz (Jean Miller), a 360-year-old Zeloniphus plant.
Unfortunately, Eva and her leafy allies draw the ire of the nation’s government and business leaders, who brand them as eco-terrorists. Deputy CIA Director Osborne (Michael Siebrass) assigns agent Bert (played as a younger man by Hance) to “shut this thing down,” Wallace explained.
By the time Bert locates Eva in a lava tube in eastern Oregon, however, he’s become infatuated with the researcher and her mission.
“He actually falls in love with her before he even meets her,” Shadrach explained.
Livi Dom rounds out the cast as Bert’s granddaughter, Zygotia.
Like Espressivo! Chamber Theatre’s previous production, “Lunatics in Love,” “The Botanical Engineers” intersperses its narrative with original songs written by Wallace. He accompanies the cast members on guitar, guitar synthesizer and percussion, joining them on tunes such as “The CIA Song (Classified!)” and “The Green Age Is Here!”
According to Wallace, one of the biggest challenges of adapting “The Botanical Engineers” for the stage was “designing a plant (character) that would be interesting to watch.”
“Their way of moving and communicating needs to be pretty nonhuman,” he said.
Since Oxcerfyligoz can’t speak, Miller had to learn how to communicate nonverbally through body language.
“The way I move when I’m upset is very different than the way I move when I’m being all-encompassing and friendly,” she explained. “I even get a (scene) where I get to be flirtatious.”
Unlike Audrey II from “Little Shop of Horrors,” Wallace said, “Our plant is not a malevolent being at all, but is trying to bring along a positive transformation.”
Although “The Botanical Engineers” deals with some serious subject mat- ter, “We don’t (put) a lot of preachy information in there,” Wallace said.
Instead, he wants to bring audience members into a bigger conversation about the earth, the environment and bio-mimicry, which encourages those seeking to solve human problems to turn to nature for inspiration.
“Instead of trying to invent the wheel, why don’t we look at how nature has been solving all these problems?” Wallace asked, describing plants as “the great teachers.” “What is called for is for us to come off of our high horse and humble ourselves to that great body of knowledge.”
Reach Sarah Linn at 781-7907.