A Cohort Club Blog Post by James McCusker
7 January 2015
“A single piece of modern furniture changes everything. Stick an Eames Lounge Chair and Ottoman into your living room and suddenly that overstuffed La-Z-Boy now needs to be replaced with a Nelson Marshmallow couch. Out goes Uncle Charlie’s yard sale coffee table and in comes a sleek Noguchi glass top. To go with the Feng Shui flow, family members will also have to be switched out for a bevy of Victoria’s Secret gals and Abercrombie and Fitch guys. A specific, artfully designed object dictates not only the space which it inhabits, but it also defines those who occupy that space.
Now place a newly designed, gigantic man-eating plant from outer space into a small Skid Row flower shop located on Geva Theatre Center’s Mainstage. Its vines reach far and wide. These tentacles affect everything they touch. The ripple effect is amazing. Ronette (Gavyn Pickens) says it best when she sings, “Stand aside and watch that mothah blow! Explosion!”
Little Shop of Horrors’ libretto book’s character breakdown for Audrey II states it’s “an anthropomorphic cross between a Venus flytrap and an avocado. It has a huge, nasty-looking pod which gains a shark-like aspect when open and snapping at food. The creature is played by a series of four increasing large puppets, manipulated by one puppeteer. The first time we see The Plant, it is less than one foot tall. The last time we see it, it fills the entire stage.”
Currently, the three largest cottage industries in the United States are producing either handmade jewelry, microbrews or Audrey IIs. These giant puppets are passed around like hot potatoes from theater to theater. Google “Audrey II” puppet and up pops a variety of specimens for sale or rent. For example, Audreytwo.com rents and sells, yet the plant’s bright garish color palette and shape are quite specific. Sean Daniels, the show’s director, shared more than three weeks back that many theater companies also purchase Audrey IIs from recently shuttered productions. With a grin, he says that once you get a premade Audrey II, the puppeteer has to climb into a smelly, dirty, used puppet. But more importantly, due to the rented or purchased plant’s design and operating capacity, major artistic decisions have already been made out of house. Daniels states that the musical’s set then “fits the plant.” This prepackaging leads to a domino effect with certain aspects of costume, sound and lighting already being shaped. Artistic decisions suddenly become limited with a preconceived plant. When considering Geva’s recent branding of Made in Rochester, Audrey II being a fresh, from the ground up, redesign makes sense. Daniels concludes that Geva is “regional theatre not a tour.” Geva’s Audrey II is homegrown.
The logistics of constructing a central character are seen in a small sampling of the blizzard of daily Rehearsal Reports. “Dec. 20: Puppet Fitting- Will Blum (Hand Cast), And our first real foray into staging with the puppet. We are concerned about being able to see the plant around the counter in Shop B. Dec 21: We are loading in the puppets to the rehearsal room at 2pm tomorrow. Can we get a copy of Danny Rutigliano’s measurements to confirm puppet escape plan? We believe that Raymond will sometime operate the final puppet from a standing position. Dec 23: What is the height of the plant escape door? Dec 28: For the handpuppet: the hole Raymond made for the lower jaw needs to be a thumb pocket on the outside of the puppet, we think with a green glove. Jan 2: Dan is here and working with an army of helpers in the Nextstage to get the puppets finished. We sent Raymond down for the day to assist. Jan 5: We walked through the plan for eating people with puppets.”
Today, 12:30 – 2:00 p.m. has been set aside for “Work Notes with Puppet Emphasis”. A few weeks back Audrey II (#2) was just a large bloated football. And version #3 was a large wire cone. Today Puppet #2 is more defined in shape and ready to Cha Cha, and #3 is now covered with greenish textured fabric. The last and largest incarnation of Audrey II (#4) is not present. It’s currently being painted.
Raymond Carr loosens up with several Yoga positions before two stage personnel lower puppet #3 over him. He then snaps into the plant’s harness. His legs can be seen as he perches on the large flower pot. Over the last few weeks Daniels will occasionally inquire, “How are you holding up Raymond?” Today there’s work notes on the “Sominex/Suppertime” number with Kristen Mengelkoch (Audrey).
A few weeks back what Daniels refers to as the “Bugs Bunny set-up” was mapped out. It’s a vaudeville chestnut where the comic payoff is all in the timing. As Audrey crosses in front of the plant (Audrey II), she feels she’s being watched so she turns around four times to face the plant. Three times Audrey II, who’s watching her potential supper, snaps back into a neutral position as Audrey spins around. On Audrey’s fourth time spinning around to look, Audrey II has not moved. The plant holds the neutral position, standing straight up in her planter. But there’s two new issues that concern Carr.
The first is that he’s having problems seeing Mengelkoch when she’s about to turn around. The new fabric is messing with his sight lines. During some walk-throughs, as Audrey turns, he can’t get the puppet back quickly enough into the neutral position. Carr is also concerned because he’ll be using Puppet #4 (currently at the painter’s) for the scene. The extra weight will slow his reaction time. He’s concerned the movements won’t be as sharp. He will have to anticipate more during the scene. Daniels expresses that information in the scene is moving “faster than I can understand.” Carr asks Daniels, about the scene’s intent. After some conferring, it’s decided that Carr will move to key words in the song’s lyric. As Mengelkoch sings “Sominex”, she’ll delay her turn a beat before the cue words. This gives Carr the time he needs to move the plant’s head. The lines motivate the proper movement. The joke now plays like a charm.
Later in the afternoon, Will Blum (Seymour) and Audrey II tighten up some staging of “Sominex/Suppertime”. It’s been discussed in previous rehearsals that Audrey II is more and more aggressive as the plot moves forward. Daniels explains that, “Theoretically more blood, more strength.” During what’s been labelled the Mortal Combat scene, maximum performance possibilities are tinkered with and considered. It’s decided that Audrey II’s pot should fall over during the interaction. Wendy Seyb, the musical’s choreographer steps in and suggests a left foot/right foot/then kneel movement for Carr as he dashes towards Seymour. Daniels adds that the plant should fain weakness at a certain point. Blum then tries out an assortment of movements while wrestling with a gigantic set of jaws. During this sequence, Audrey II remains mute.
It’s been a man’s world when it comes to the voice leaving Audrey II’s jaws. All major productions have featured an actor with a deep, baratone voice. The 1986 film adaptation featured Levi Tubbs of Four Tops fame. The musical’s libretto vocal book states that Audrey II is to be sung “by an actor on an offstage microphone. It is important that this actor have clear visual access to the puppets onstage, so that he can provide accurate lip-synch. The sound is a cross between Otis Redding, Barry White, and Wolfman Jack. Think of The Voice as that of a street-smart, funky, conniving villain – Rhythm and Blues’ answer to Richard the Third.” Daniels’ reimagining of the show includes a fresh take on the pitch of Audrey II’s vocal delivery. Behind his great, extraterrestrial Venus flytrap is a woman with a mic. The sound at Geva Theatre is now a cross between Aretha Franklin, Etta James and Tina Turner. The Voice is now – a soulful Rhythm and Blues’ answer to Lady Macbeth.
This addition of a woman’s voice brings a fresh dimension to the story. Seymour is now trapped between two distinctively different women. One weak. One strong. One who’s been abused. One who abuses. Both these women need Seymour for different reasons and both change him. One brings the better. One brings the worst.
In the corner of the rehearsal room sits Bethany Thomas. She is an unassuming woman in stylish jeans, a deep blue sweater and red high top converse sneaks. A brightly speckled scarf swoops around her neck. Al Hirschfeld would have had a field day hiding thousands of his NINAs in her full swirls of hair. Behind bright red framed glasses, her eyes dart over the top-heavy script precariously tilting on her lap. But Thomas seductively — and sinisterly — snaps into life when delivering both dialogue and song. She’s the one your mother warned you about.
While going over “Feed Me (Git It)”, Thomas gleefully rocks back and forth as she pouts and smacks her lips over each delicious line. She frantically nods her head up and down. “Must be blood!…Must be fresh!” Her Audrey II’s sultry after-hours club spirit inhabits the onstage puppet. Her smoky delivery of Ashman’s lyrics “Would you like a Cadillac car?/Or a guest shot on Jack Parr?/How about a date with Hedy Lamarr?/You’ gonna get it!” makes this Audrey II a soulful soul stealer.
Classic musicals are artfully designed objects that change and touch everyone within the space they occupy. One of their many striking features is that they’re able to transcend time and place. Classic musicals are not musty museum pieces, but living works of art that are always game for a variety of new and engaging interpretations. Is Little Shop of Horrors a classic musical?
Well, do you think an Eames Lounge Chair is a classic? Daniels and his company do.
– James McCusker