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May 18, 2018 Comments (0) Views: 154 *Seattle Theaterland, Arts & Entertainment, Puppets, Reviews, Stage

Theatre Ketchup: Evil Puppets Take Over Seattle Stages

Tipsy Rose Lee (she/her) as Audrey in LITTLE SHOP at Reboot Theatre. Photo: Jeff Carpenter

Tipsy Rose Lee (she/her) as Audrey in LITTLE SHOP at Reboot Theatre. Photo: Jeff Carpenter

Secret Fun Fact:

I j’adore puppets.

Well…certain kinds of puppets. Folksy puppets…no. Shadow puppets…not so much. A Punch & Judy Show is really about spousal abuse and terrible jokes that weren’t even funny in 1710.

I do like down and dirty, NAAAAAASTY puppets doing fun and vile things to one another and various humans who stand in their way. The Muppets have mostly been family fun for the last 50+ years but Oscar is still a Grouch and Miss Piggy is frankly a mega-beeatch diva of the first order.

Naturally the puppet heavy musical theater classic LITTLE SHOP OF HORRORS has a very fond place in my corrupt little heart due to various things besides its deliciously cheesy script based on an even cheesier 1960s no budget Roger Corman horror film and its fantastic songs by Howard Ashman and Alan Menken. It also has a truly evil and nasty carnivorous plant from another world as its main villain and naturally that character is played by a series of plant puppets through out the musical which has been delighting audiences for 30 years now.

I’ve long said Little Shop of Horrors is THE ideal musical to produce because it’s pretty much impossible to muck it up too much. It has a clever story with a handful of characters (evil extraterrestrial plant finds a home in a Skid Row florist shop populated by a crusty old owner and his two employees, a clumsy nerd named Seymour who is in love with the down on her luck blonde bombshell sales girl named Audrey who dates awful men who abuse her; plant then proceeds to take over the world), really terrific songs and a fun setting (1960s Skid Row). The only tricky part is the plant/puppet and most theater companies will just rent the necessary props from a theatrical supply company.

Seattle’s Reboot Theatre Company is a small fringe theater group but they got BUSY and actually MADE their puppets, despite having a skid row budget…and, the puppets are GOOD! The production is pretty solid, too, and Reboot even switched things up by their diverse casting…this production features non-binary actors and genderqueer actors and drag queens and actors of different ages/races playing roles not normally associated with actors of differing ages/races/genders and it all works.

The set is….simple and the Slate Theater space inside of the Inscape Arts building down in SoDo in that odd little no man’s land between Uwajimaya and Century Link Field doesn’t have the best acoustics for a musical but the charm of the show and of these actors still comes through. Dani Hobbs was a chipper and endearing Seymour and Tipsy Rose Lee played up the sweet charms of poor old Audrey and nicely underscored the sad fact that Audrey is a perpetual victim of abuse.  Vincent Millay was very funny in a number of roles including the sadistic dentist who abuses Audrey and the trio of street girls who act as a chorus/commentary on the proceedings were nicely played by two women with big voices Danielle Hill and Angela Snyder, and a young man with an equally big voice, Jake Atwood as Chiffon, playing the role as a cheeky young queen.

But, then there’s the final character in the show, and usually we don’t SEE a person playing the role of the plant, Audrey II, we just see the plant/puppet itself and hear the offstage voice acting/singing the role. And, normally that vocal role is performed by an African American male with a deep voice; it’s how the role is written vocally. And, we come to my only quibble with Reboot’s production of “Little Shop”…they oddly decided to use their terrific big plant puppet when Audrey II reaches full growth but they also decided to feature the female actor, Kristie Werner, cast as the speaking/singing voice ONSTAGE in an odd “Mother Nature Meets Poison Ivy From Batman Comics” get up who then moves around the stage performing the role while the excellent puppet is sort of shifted to the sidelines.

Huh?

It really makes no sense. The puppet is great and well performed by Casey DeCaire and Kyle Travers but because you have the live actor onstage while the puppet is doing its thing, there’s a confusion of focus…WHAT/WHO are we, as the audience supposed to be reacting to? The actual puppet character? The weird Poison Ivy Lady? Oh, and the other actors on stage aren’t reacting to the Poison Ivy Lady…they’re reacting to/with the plant/puppet!

And, to be frank, Ms Werner really isn’t up vocally to the role…it requires a singer who can handle that style of song (Motown) and the ability to belt out low notes. Gender or race don’t matter, (there’s plenty of females out there who can belt out a low note…) but the role does require someone who is capable of singing the songs as written.

So, Reboot has a solid charmer here despite this odd staging/casting from Harry Turpin who staged this production. For fans of the material and the cast and crew, this production is still worth checking out due to their talents and the charms of Little Shop of Horrors itself. 

Review: Little Shop of Horrors.


The evil Tyrone (acted/designed by Ben Burris) stars in the "evil Christian puppet play" HAND TO GOD at Seattle Public Theatre May 11 to June 3, 2018. Photography by John Ulman.

The evil Tyrone (acted/designed by Ben Burris) stars in the “evil Christian puppet play” HAND TO GOD at Seattle Public Theatre May 11 to June 3, 2018. Photography by John Ulman.

There’s an equally nasty little puppet at the center of another show onstage right now in Seattle but this one is more diabolical than extraterrestrial. The villain at the heart of Robert Askins’ award winning black comedy HAND TO GOD is a vile little monster named Tyrone who is created by an unhappy teenage boy named Jason who has been forced to join his grieving mother Margery’s Christian Puppet Class at their local church. 

It’s been six months since Margery’s husband/Jason’s dad has died and the two of them aren’t doing so well. Both are lost and unsure of how to face their futures and cling to an idea that this puppet project could lift them out of their funk. There are two other teens in the group; sweetly trashy Jessica who seems to like Jason (and he likes her too) and the punkish lout Timmy who has a bad reputation for violence and sex but seems oddly drawn to being involved in such a pious project. There’s also kindly Pastor Greg who thinks it time for Margery to emerge from mourning because…well, they’re BOTH lonely so why not be lonely TOGETHER?!?!

Meanwhile, Jason has become very skilled at creating his puppet character Tyrone but as Tyrone’s tough and in your face personality begins to express things that Jason could/would never express or do, it begins to seem like maybe Jason isn’t actually in charge of Tyrone…is Jason having a schizoid breakdown or is he possessed by the Devil?

At the same time, Margery begins to explore her demons as well…as her life starts to unravel she too does/says things she would normally never do/say. Tyrone’s blunt frankness seems to having an effect on everyone he comes into contact with…

So, everything about Seattle Public Theater’s funny as hell, whip smart, sardonically sadistic yet emotionally compelling production of Hand to God is on point. The design elements are pitch perfect…Christopher Mumaw’s drably cheerful basement Christian church activity room and Chelsea Cook’s clever costumes and Thorn Michaels’ “demonic one minute/fluorescent Christian the next” lighting design and effects and Rob Witmer’s diabolically droll music/sound choices. 

Kelly Kitchen has done a great job of staging here but the superb performances are highlighted by her direction of this especially well cast corps of actors, so she has to be given credit for their greatness, too.

Martyn G. Krouse is always an interesting actor in the roles he is cast in and here, he’s just so deliciously and perfectly cast as the sweet but morally strong Pastor Greg. It’s also nice that playwright Robert Askins has done such an admirable job in writing this character; too often religious people, especially ministers/priests/pastors are written as buffoonish clowns by the mostly left/agnostic leading arty types who like to write about such things but Mr. Askins actually makes Pastor Greg a fully rounded and believable character who just so happens to have religious faith…and, doesn’t treat faith as some sort of failing or weakness on the part of the character. It’s a good part and it’s very well played by Mr. Krouse.

The other two “teens” are also very delightfully cast…we’ve seen both Hannah Mootz (as Jessica) and Arjun Pande (Timmy) play teens in the past but Ms Mootz’s Jessica is a sly charmer and Mr. Pande’s Timmy just a deliciously horny brat, that’s it’s a pleasure to see them teen it up again. Fun roles well played by good actors.

The play really focuses on both mother Margery and son Jason and both are just excellent here. Again, Mr. Askins has crafted great characters for them to play with smart, engaging lines to say but both actors bring so much to the table here. Sunam Ellis is already on my short list of “Actors I’m always happy to see cast in a show” because of her natural charm but mainly because she makes all of her characters seem so real…so grounded in their own organic state of being, despite the craziness of whatever plot her characters are involved in. That’s a rare gift for an actor and she really does have it here…her crippled/wounded/devastated Margery is frequently very very funny in Hand to God, but at the heart of the play it’s about her dealing with her own grief and at her own lack of having any sense of herself…of who Margery is supposed to be.

And, that’s also echoed by Ben Burris, another fine Seattle actor, who is, again, the perfect casting here as the wounded Jason and the foul mouthed Tyrone. There is a lot of duality in Hand to God; Jason obviously but also Margery and Pastor Greg and even the two smaller characters all present many different layers of their individual psyches. Mr. Burris has the challenge of having to capture/portray not only the timid, wounded nature of poor sad Jason but also the complete opposite complexity of a monster like Tyrone….AT THE SAME DAMN TIME AS THE TWO CHARACTERS CONVERSE BACK AND FORTH WITH EACH OTHER! It’s a big, bravura, complex performance that’s obviously aided here by the fact Mr. Burris is actually a trained puppet artist (who designed the fantastic pieces for this show) but also because Mr. Burris is a very gifted actor.

So, there’s so much to love here. Robert Askins has written a very clever piece of theater; foul mouthed one minute and emotionally complex the next…and, Seattle Public has produced a top notch show with all elements very much in tune with the script. Hand to God is very much recommended to all fans of the sacred…and the puppet-y profane. 

Review: Hand to God by Robert Askins.

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