Let’s set the scene. It begins with a small flower shop on Skid Row and a seemingly small and innocent plant. However, do not prick your finger too close to this plant, as its true intent may be much more sinister than appears at first glance.
For the Halloween Season, Stumptown Stages is putting on the horrifying production of Little Shop of Horrors, playing until Oct. 30 at Portland’s Winningstad Theater. The show remained relatively close to the original theater production, and most of the storyline will be fairly familiar to those acquainted with the 1986 American horror comedy musical film.
In talking with the show’s director, Steve Coker, he said, “The biggest diversion for me or diversions from the classic is that I wanted to create those older characters, and I wanted them to be more grounded. Other than that… I really just wanted to let the work speak for itself.”
Many of us are familiar with the character Ellen Greene created when she played Audrey—the ditzy blonde with an annoyingly high-pitched voice and not much character depth. Coker wanted to change that. “I wanted to cast somebody who had life experience, who understood what loss was and understood, you know, hope and had experienced it,” he said. “It just brings more depth to the character. She’s not some ditzy unintelligent victim. She’s a person who has landed where she’s landed and is making the best of the situation.”
When she auditioned, Coker knew this role was perfect for Tawni Peterson. “There was just something in her audition that just said this is a person who understands tenderness, who understands loss, who understands what dreams are,” Coker said. “Everything was there. I could just feel it in her vocals. So I was like, I’m gonna cast a little older than they normally get cast.”
On stage, Peterson’s age seemingly only enhanced her talent. Her vocals were controlled and relatable, and while she did personify that ditzy character that we all know from the original, she was also more than that—she was relatable and someone the audience could easily find themselves connecting with. “A character it’s hard not to empathize with—one person, a fully formed person you can totally reach out and relate to,” Coker described.
But the switch from character to fully formed person did not stop at Audrey. The role of Seymour Krelborn, played by Jason Hays, was also intentionally made to be a more fully formed character. As Coker said, “he just had a sincerity about him, and I thought, you know, there is an innate sense of humor and goofiness, but it doesn’t go over the top and into cartoon.”
It was true that Hays’ personification of Seymour allowed for the nostalgia to remain, as his performance and especially his body language was still reminiscent of an ‘80s movie, but without being so extreme that an audience member couldn’t see themselves responding that way. The original leaned into the comedy with the over-the-top character dramatizations that often detract from the character development, but Hays’ and Peterson’s performances allowed both to exist in the same space.
Of course, there is always one character that you can’t and probably shouldn’t take the crazy out of, and that is Orin Scrivello, the dentist and Audrey’s abusive boyfriend, played by Dustin Fuentes. Maybe it was the realism of the other two leads in stark contrast to Orin’s insanity, but his performance was more terrifying and maniacal than the movie’s portrayal.
While the horror of this movie comes in the man-eating plant with its connection to the supernatural and all its other references to the elements of classic horror, what is probably more horrific is the reality of people like Orin. He is relatable in the worst kinds of ways, and that is the best for horror. “I knew that once he locks in and commits to something, there’s greatness that’s going to come out of it,” Coker pointed out regarding Fuentes. “I trusted that… I think he became this maniacal yet relatable monster.”
Fuentes played Orin, but he also played seven additional supporting characters. “Every one of those characters that he plays is a con man,” Coker said. “I kinda always thought in my head, it was like, yeah, they are different characters, but they’re all being played by the same person, and there are some similarities across the board.”
This was perhaps my only issue with this production—having Fuentes play a female character and other characters who were disabled. In the theater, this common practice (although increasingly less so) is frequently excused by citing budgeting, whether in the original or current version, and essentially stating, “that is just how it has always worked.”
According to an article published by the Harvard Political Review, “One in four American adults has a disability of some kind, making them the largest minority in the country, yet they are also the least represented in the performing arts field: Ninety-five percent of disabled characters are played by able-bodied actors.”
Additionally, this author has pointed out in a past Vanguard theater piece that despite the tradition of men playing women’s roles from ancient times, it often problematically references a woman’s place in that given society as inferior or not worthy of self-representation.
In his defense, Coker pointed out that the production had gone above and beyond to cast a diverse cast. “It’s hard in Portland, too, sometimes to casting, you know, black actresses,” he said. “We had a hard time finding three that were available or interested in doing the show.” Additionally, he pointed out that they even hired a disabled actress. “We had a young girl in the cast who has a disability, and it was really fun to watch her bloom and blossom in the show,” he said.
Ultimately, Coker hoped that playgoers have a good time at the show. “I’m not interested in trying to necessarily educate people or to, you know, pull the mirror up to people’s faces, and what I want is for people to be entertained, and we need that right now,” Cooker said. “So I hope that people… just enjoy the absurdity of a giant man-eating plant from outer space.”