'Little Shop of Horrors' biggest star brought to life by two Southeast Missouri State University students

Friday, October 2, 2009
Southeast Missouri State University's production of "Little Shop of Horrors" got creative with the strange and unusual plant, using performers as the vines, and one man inside the plant controlling the movements of the head. (Laura Simon)

Two relatively unseen actors bow at the close of the final act of "Little Shop of Horrors" and should arguably bring the most applause.

Blake Hardin and Bradford Rolen play Audrey II, the bloodthirsty plant in the Southeast Missouri State University's Department of Theatre and Dance musical, which started Wednesday and continues through Sunday.

Rolen plays a bum in the opening number. For the rest of the production, he sits on the left of the stage with the piano player and provides the voice of Audrey II while Hardin controls the plant's movements.

"When I came up for a curtain call, a little kid said, 'Oh, that was the old guy,'" Rolen said.

Hardin, who has no face time on stage, said he thinks people will put two and two together when they both come out to bow at curtains. He has been in "Little Shop of Horrors" twice before, in a community production in Hillsboro, Mo., and with Stages St. Louis. His experience helping with the plant in those shows landed him the role of Audrey II operator in the Southeast production.

Blake Hardin, left, and Bradford Rolen bring the man-eating plant to life in the production of "Little Shop of Horrors" at Bedell Performance Hall.

The department rented the plants as do most theater companies. There are four Audrey IIs in the play: a small first appearance, a slightly larger, hand-held Audrey II, a 6-foot tall plant and a 7 1/2-foot-tall plant, which Hardin said is his favorite because it's easier to manipulate than the third.

The two larger plants are designed and controlled like puppets. Hardin sits or stands in an opening at the back of the plant -- covered by a blind more commonly used by hunters -- and uses two levers to open and close the mouth.

Hardin has to reach up for the handles to operate the third plant, while the levers for the fourth Audrey II are closer to his body. The fourth puppet is heavier but easier to manipulate.

"Just the top jaw is 80 pounds," Hardin said. This is his first time to actually play the puppet and "it's exhausting," he said.

The two actors didn't hold extra practices to sync the character, but Hardin said he did attend more musical rehearsals than he would have otherwise and the two had to find their rhythm.

"Sometimes I just let him catch up," Rolen said. "I get that I talk too fast anyway."

Rolen said he slows some lines down, but the songs have an established tempo that he can't change. The two actors simply play a guessing game and try to stay together through this admittedly odd theatrical situation.

"You rarely have lip syncing with musical theater," Rolen said.

The stem and head of the puppet were designed by Frank Oz, who also designed the Muppets. The tentacles and rest of the plant accessories, however, were made by student workers at Southeast. The thick green ropes have green body suits attached to them. Students suit up and slither around making Audrey II fully come to life on stage.

"Little Shop of Horrors" will be performed in the Bedell Performance Hall at 7:30 p.m. today and Saturday and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $19 and $16 and available at the River Campus box office or by calling 651-2265.


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