Murder, romance and doo-wop. For the past few weeks, the IU Theatre Department has been hard at work performing “Little Shop of Horrors”as part of its IU Summer Theatre programming.
But in addition to the usual crew of actors, costumers and lighting technicians, “Little Shop of Horrors” has one addition: one giant puppet. The musical is a dark comedy about an alien plant that’s hungry for blood and quite vocal about it.
Throughout the show, the plant moves, sings and opens and closes its mouth. This means that in addition to the usual acting, props and stage direction, each performance requires use of a gigantic puppet brought to life by a puppeteer and voice actor.
Rented from Skylight Opera Theatre, the plant, named Audrey II, is quite a spectacle. Throughout the show it takes on four different sizes, with the largest standing at over 8 feet tall. Behind the scenes, Audrey II is actually MFA student Michael Bayler.
Cramped inside of a giant puppet for 30 minutes at a time, Bayler barely has space to move, with only 1 or 2 inches of extra space in most directions. He can’t even see when the mouth isn’t open, yet he still manages to perform to the audience exclusively using motion.
With the limitations of body language, Bayler must bring the puppet to life by syncing lip movements and swaying to the rhythm. Additionally, when the plant becomes significantly larger than him, he’s forced to use large metal bars to open and close the jaw. To make this happen, Bayler has to memorize dialogue and cues like any actor but additionally has to react to what the voice actor is saying.
This becomes more difficult because the puppeteer doesn’t voice Audrey II. Instead, a doctoral student in voice, Jeremy Gussin, makes all the noise. Gussin explained that it’s a little strange seeing Audrey II on stage.
“I have to perform physical actions besides my voice, things that aren’t necessarily me, like grunts and growls," Gussin said. "It’s definitely a challenge."
Like any show, there are nights where things don’t go according to plan. Gussin is speaking, Bayler is moving, but they don’t necessarily line up.
But depicting Audrey II isn’t a challenge for just the performers. The stage crew takes five to six minutes in the dark to just get Bayler into the plant, in addition to clipping the pod inside its pot, tying the dressing down to the actor's legs and creating sound effects after the plant eats. Additionally, cast members’ clothes regularly get stuck on the plant, providing an additional challenge for the costume staff.
Despite these challenges, IU Summer Theatre's production of "Little Shop of Horrors" and Bayler and Gussin's performances as Audrey II are to die for. The cult classic musical is showing through July 28, with shows at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, Friday, Saturday and Sunday.
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