Dancer and aerialist Eric Esteb and actor Ekello J. Harrid Jr. are those heads. The creature's personality. Its evil soul. Hidden behind a facade of cloth and foam wickedness.
Their job is to turn a bunch of stage props into one of musical theater's most iconic villains.
It feels wrong to call Little Shop of Horrors a love story, although it does follow the blossoming relationship of Seymour and Audrey, two employees of a New York city flower shop. Blooming alongside their relationship though is Audrey II, the masochistic Venus flytrap in question, whose health and vitality becomes interwoven with the success of Seymour and the flower shop itself.
It's a tale of yearning, temptation, life choices, the dichotomy between good and evil ....
Aw, to hell with the artsy psychobabble. The play's really about that mutant Venus flytrap, which eats people because they're yummy.
And that flytrap, Audrey II, is a combination of Harrid's deep voice and Esteb's puppetry.
Seymour (Joshua Carter) and the Audrey II (puppeteer: Eric Esteb, voice: Ekello Harrid Jr.) in Little Shop of Horrors, a co-production of ACT and The 5th Avenue Theatre. Photo: Tracy Martin.
Literally in separate rooms during the show, the pair has to think, sing and move as a single monster plant, interacting with a cast that neither can see in person. Harrid does Audrey II's voice from a small room by himself, where he sits with a pair of monitors focused on the plant and the rest of the stage. Esteb is inside the plant, seeing nothing but red felt.
A dancer and an aerialist, Esteb, 32, performs at Teatro ZinZanni and also as part of aerial duo, "The Innamorati," with his girlfriend, Quynbi Ada. He has done puppet work as well, fascinated by how to convert a cloth being into something alive. And he is a frequent dancer in Seattle musicals — the connection that led to his part as the puppeteer for Audrey II.
Harrid, 42, who goes by "EJ," is a longtime Puget Sound actor as well as a producer of short films.
The musical features four versions of Audrey II, who is named after the protagonist's crush. The first is a hand puppet, which Esteb controls from within a window seat underneath the creature's flower pot. Actor Joshua Carter, who plays nebbish antihero Seymour, manipulates the second, slightly bigger Audrey II, also a hand puppet. A fake right arm disguises the fact that Carter's real right arm has a job of its own. Audrey II's third incarnation is essentially Esteb's greatly contorted body — his legs are the roots and his arms serve as the plants upper and lower jaws.
The fourth, final and supersized Audrey II — large enough to swallow three victims whole — is mostly moved by Esteb lying on his back doing bench presses. However, there are times when he has to stand up to let the swallowed actors dive between his legs.
So how do you bring inner depth and character to a man-eating plant?
Her deeper motivations aren't complex — eat people and take over the world — but Audrey II is fairly helpless in her first three incarnations. So she has to wheedle, pout, seduce, charm and cajole like the girlfriend from hell who somehow has a deep bass voice.
"EJ did the character work. I did the motions to match," Esteb said.
At the first run-throughs, Harrid would sing the songs, and Esteb would experiment with motions — ending up with quick sharp ones for anger and dominance, switching to fluid serpentine moves for the more seductive elements.
It took a while for the new pair to fall into stride with one another. Esteb is used to working in sync with his girlfriend and aerialist partner, their joint movements propelled by an unspoken vocabulary between the two. But even the two of them don't have to do the exact same things simultaneously.
Harrid and Esteb had to learn to do the same thing at the same time.
Now, when the pair demonstrate Audrey II's moves out of costume, Esteb guides his own movements by mouthing the words along with Harrid as he sings. The pair work on autopilot, down to the most subtle lyrical rhythms.
Initially though, the speed of Audrey II's singing and talking was more of a negotiation. Originally, director Bill Berry wanted the plant to talk and move faster than the pair could handle. A slower speaking Audrey II came off as coldly calculating.
Now, when Audrey II speaks, Harrid watches the plant on his monitor and adjusts his speed to Esteb's plant movements. But those roles reverse on the songs because the orchestra and other singers are locked into speeds and rhythms, meaning Esteb has to keep up no matter what.
The sweat-drenching killer piece is the song "Git It," which features Audrey II's third incarnation pleading to Seymour for fresh people meat. Seymour protests, and the pair sing a fastpaced duet about the horrors of murder and dismemberment versus the fact that some people deserve to die.
At times, Audrey II's voice plunges into warp speed.
"I'm your genie, I'm your friend, I'm your willin' slave
Take a chance, just feed me and You know what kinda eats,
The kinda red hot treats, The kinda sticky licky sweets I crave"
At that point, all Esteb can do is try to keep up.
But Harrid points out that the illusion of the theater helps out. People see what they hear. "That's the cool thing about the brain," he said. "It connects things. It's the classical puppeteering trick — you don't actually see what you see the puppet do."
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