By Daniella Ignacio
This article was first published in DC Theatre Scene here.
In a season with high profile productions of Little Shop of Horrors on Broadway and across the country, the DMV is getting its own taste of the Alan Menken sci-fi musical theatre classic this October, with a new twist. Little Shop of Horrors at Constellation Theatre Company may be in a small space, but they’re doing big things, especially with its innovative puppet design by the intrepid puppet designer/actor Matthew McGee. The four pods – designated as Pods One, Two, Three and Four – display the terrifying development of a plant into an alien-like monster.
As the puppets are moved around the space and adjusted to be in the right place for a photo call, McGee speaks fondly of them, calling each of the four pods “this guy” like an old friend throughout the interview. McGee said that as a son of puppeteers, who joined them as they toured around California doing shadow puppet shows at elementary schools, puppetry is a pivotal part of his life.
“I like to tell people I was raised by puppets because I’ve been exposed to puppetry my whole life,” said McGee. “Growing up with it, going to festivals in the summertime, taking workshops and learning about puppetry…over the years, I just started tinkering with it and learning more by experience.”
McGee’s recent projects include designing puppets for The Lion King, Jr. in Alexandria, Minnesota’s Andrea Theatre and My Father’s Dragon at Synetic Theater last winter, in addition to his own short film puppet theatre pieces.
He believes in the power of making the impossible happen through puppetry in theatre.
“I’m a big advocate of incorporating puppetry for theatre because it is, in my opinion, the closest thing to magic that you can get on stage besides doing actual magic,” he said. “You can go to the movies and get CGI and special effects, but to see a piece of live theatre and have it be just as fantastical as something you could see in a movie, that excites me. If you can get people to go ‘Whoah! What am I seeing?’ [and] if they think they’re seeing the impossible, that’s magic and that’s what I live for.”
McGee’s original inspiration for the puppets came from his love of the original Little Shop movie, which he said has some of the best puppetry in a movie that he’s seen. He wanted to bring the life, articulation and believability of the original Jim Henson puppets into this production, while also expanding upon the possibilities for making the puppets easy to maneuver yet still terrifying and progressively alien-like. He called the process a “primarily solo undertaking of monstrous proportions,” which started in August.
Oftentimes, with the bigger Pods Three (which sings “Get It”) and Four (the final man-eating version of Audrey II), the puppeteer has to sit or stand inside the puppet with their arms stretched out to control it, which McGee acknowledges is a workout.
In McGee’s designs, Audrey II is devised as an adaptation of a bunraku rod puppet where the puppeteer is not confined inside the puppet. Puppeteer RJ Pavel wears a black jumpsuit that covers him from head to toe, gets into a harness that’s connected to the back of Audrey II’s head through a rod and operates the plant from behind using that rig system. He uses handles that control the mouth through the leaves the mask him and is completely hidden from the audience.
“You get to see the stem of the neck, and you get to see the head moving and everything is alive,” McGee said. “Just seeing it in action – even for me, knowing how it works, I think ‘there it is, there’s the magic.’”
A lot of the material used for the plants is high density foam rubber sheet, which comes in sheets with different thicknesses and dry out patterns based on a model mockup. McGee blew out the pattern to the scale that he needed, and then traced it on the foam, cut it and glued it together to get the shapes of the heads and the leaves. They were then painted and coated in rubber to make them durable.
McGee said that he’s taken a lot of joy out of the differences in color patterns on the leaves, which are inspired by not only plants, but reptiles like lizards and frogs. The baby Pod One, “Twoey,” has leaves around his head that have highlights of greens and purples. By the time it progresses to Pod Three, he’s still got purples and greens, but the tips are blue, orange and yellow – it’s not exactly your typical “mean green mother,” but it’s definitely “from outer space.” When we spoke, McGee was finishing up Pod Four, which will be darker, with more of a grey tone.
“I’m excited by the contrasts of darks and brighter eerie neon greens and yellows, so it becomes less earthly,” he said. “The bigger he gets, the more alien he should become. It starts out looking like a little flytrap but by the end he has to have the essence of a flytrap that grows into something truly monstrous.”
McGee also uses his puppets to tie this production directly to the DMV area during the time period of Little Shop. McGee put Twoey in a Wilkins coffee can, a popular DMV coffee brand during the ‘60s, to pay homage to the fact that this production is being done in Washington, D.C., where Jim Henson got his start. To make this “puppet nerdy happy little Easter egg,” he found photos of the cans, edited the label from those photos, and Photoshopped it to put it onto the can.
“It’s so satisfying,” he said. “I get to tie in all these things [together] and make it pertinent to not only the time period but also this show and the location.”
McGee was also involved in teaching the actors to use the puppets, and spoke highly of the puppeteer RJ Pavel, who’s had puppeteering experience before. Pavel bases the movements on a lot of the inflections and cues of Marty Austin Lamar (the voice of Audrey II), and translates it into the physical life and the plant’s body language.