This lead character really grows into her role

In four phases, 'Shop of Horrors' breathes life into a very hungry plant: Audrey II

Theater

April 17, 2005|By J. Wynn Rousuck | J. Wynn Rousuck,Sun Theater Critic

She starts out as a horticultural honey -- an adorably sweet, needy little houseplant with a jaunty pod that just begs for a little TLC.

But, by the second act of Little Shop of Horrors, Audrey II -- as the plant is affectionately dubbed -- has morphed into a mean, green killing machine, convincing her keeper, a meek florist's clerk named Seymour Krelbourn (played by Jonathan Rayson, shown at right), to indulge her rapacious appetite for blood.

"She grows, dances, talks jive, sings, takes over the stage, eats the entire cast, then attacks the audience and takes over the world." These are the words of Martin P. Robinson. He's the Sesame Street whiz who designed and operated Audrey II in the original 1982 off-off-Broadway production of this campy musical Faust story, which has music by Alan Menken and a book and lyrics by the late Baltimorean Howard Ashman.

Actually, there are four Audrey II's -- each of increasing size, shown in photos at right -- in Little Shop (which is based on Roger Corman's 1960 comic horror movie). Robinson created the 1982 Audrey II's with the help of his aunt, a sculptor, for a mere $2,500. He had another go at it for the 2003 Broadway revival, in which he also operated the giant puppet. On Broadway, his plant budget was $600,000, and he worked with "the most talented builders from Jim Henson Productions" -- 15 of them at one point.

The plant's budget for the touring production that arrives at the Hippodrome Theatre on Tuesday was more than twice that on Broadway. But the tour's initial Uber-plant -- a remote-controlled, 10-ton monster -- was turned into mulch when it proved prohibitively difficult and time-consuming to load into theaters on the road.

So, the super-sized Audrey II that stars at the Hippodrome will be the same one that held sway on Broadway last season.

Little Shop of Horrors

Where: Hippodrome Theatre, 12 N. Eutaw St.

When: 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Saturdays; 6:30 p.m. Sundays; 2 p.m. matinees Saturdays and Sundays; Tuesday-May 1.

Tickets: $24-$69

Call: 410-547-SEAT

Commentary by Audrey II's designer, Martin P. Robinson

AUDREY II'S HEIGHT

(base to tip of pod) 6-8 inches

WEIGHT:

Negligible

CONSTRUCTION MATERIALS

(in each case, covered with fabric) Light foam

'FACIAL' EXPRESSIONS

"She starts out sweet, a little cutie. ... She wants a little bit of blood, no big deal."

HOW PLANT WORKS

A hand puppet is operated by a puppeteer hidden under a countertop.

WHERE IT SLEEPS

Backstage, off the flower-shop workroom

HEIGHT

15 inches

WEIGHT:

3 pounds

CONSTRUCTION MATERIALS

Light foam

'FACIAL' EXPRESSIONS

"Just funny and sweet and happy. ... The crafting of the script is such that you're rooting for her."

HOW PLANT WORKS

A hand puppet is operated by Seymour, who has one arm in the puppet. To disguise this, Seymour also has a fake arm -- an old vaudeville trick.

WHERE IT SLEEPS

Stage left, awaiting Seymour's quick change

Plant Facts

MODELS FROM THE PLANT WORLD:

Orchids, seed pods, spiny aloe, cacti, agave, Venus flytrap and "a lot of things with horrible wicked thorns."

COLORS:

"Gets darker, more sinister. ... She starts out light, sweet, much more yellow and happy, and ends up dark, sinister green and mauves."

SPARE PARTS ON HAND:

Replacement teeth and warts, paint, extra fabric, "lots of thorns."

HOW AUDREY II EATS:

When she devours the heroine, "it has always looked like she's getting sucked in like a spaghetti noodle, but the actress' legs go in and she can go into slight body curl [taking her] under the platform that the puppeteer's standing on."

AUDREY II AS METAPHOR:

"She's nothing if not a metaphor. She's a metaphor for all those things in life that look like good ideas on the surface, but there's going to be hell to pay -- literally. You make your deal with the devil for whatever -- whether it's smoking, whether it's drinking, whether it's drugs, whether it's compromising your idealism -- all the stuff that's easy to take that first step, and it's not that bad, but then there's the next step, and that's what Audrey is. She represents all those easy choices that get you everything you want, but you must pay for in the end."

ROBINSON'S PARTING WORDS:

"What's wonderful about Little Shop is that the plant has never been treated as a prop or special effect. It's a character. It's a full-blown character in the play. When we were on Broadway, I tried to get her nominated for the best actress award as a joke -- but a joke I believed in."

HEIGHT

3 1/2 feet

WEIGHT:

35 pounds

CONSTRUCTION MATERIALS

The same type of foam, but with more structure inside. The lips curl back with a wrist mechanism in the handles.

'FACIAL' EXPRESSIONS

"[She's] pulling out all the personality stops. ... She'll say -- and she can deliver -- anything it takes. She gets very manipulative."

HOW PLANT WORKS

A puppeteer is strapped in a bucket seat in Audrey's pot; his head, arms and waist are inside the plant. His legs are in two of the roots; the other two are worked mechanically from behind by another puppeteer.

WHERE IT SLEEPS

Under shrouds, offstage right

HEIGHT

8 feet. The pod is the size of a Volkswagen beetle. "She's a big girl."

WEIGHT:

Pod alone weighs 300 pounds.

CONSTRUCTION MATERIALS

Kevlar, molded into shape with a resin

'FACIAL' EXPRESSIONS

"The lips move from a sardonic, knowing smile to a real toothy smile. ... The plant pouts and turns away, then does this puppy rollback, then looks back at Seymour to see if he's buying it. ... When my audience goes, 'Aww,' or we get a laugh with it, ... I know we've got 'em."

HOW PLANT WORKS

A puppeteer is in the center of the pod, doing all of the jaw movements by hand. Another puppeteer is in a branch-like claw that slithers along the ground and grabs the heroine. A backstage tech-nician controls the rising of the enor-mous pod. (Puppeteer duties are so strenuous, the show travels with three rotating puppeteers -- Michael Latini, Paul McGinnis and Marc Petrosino -- two of whom work each performance. Michael James Leslie supplies the plant's voice.)

WHERE IT SLEEPS

"Wherever you can fit her."

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