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The imp of the perverse: ‘Shrek’ takes the stage at the Orpheum Theatre

I went to see “Shrek: The Musical” last night. It has quite a few good qualities, and a few great ones, which I shall enumerate shortly.

I went to see “Shrek: The Musical” last night. It has quite a few good qualities, and a few great ones, which I shall enumerate shortly. But I mostly went to see it because I have met David Lindsay-Abaire, who wrote the book and lyrics, and who, for no clear reason, my girlfriend decided to prank, and I want to tell these stories.

Shrek: The Musical
Joan Marcus, Dreamworks Theatricals
Shrek: The Musical

Lindsay-Abaire is a friendly, cheerful fellow who wrote a play called “Fuddy Meers,” about an amnesiac and her lunatic family, that became quite popular, and followed it up with a play about a couple that had lost a child, “Rabbit Hole,” that netted him a Pulitzer and recently was turned into a film. He also bears something of a resemblance to Barney Rubble, which I would not mention and might not have noticed, except that he uses the cartoon character as his avatar on Facebook. Last year, he graciously agreed to be part of a theater conference I participate in, The Great Plains Theatre Conference in Omaha, Neb.
My girlfriend, Coco, also comes to the festival. We are former residents of Omaha, and have a great many friends there, and this is a chance to catch up with them, and so Coco helps out by pouring wine and taking tickets to events and whatnot. We also attend, and throw, a lot of parties, as we are flibbertigibbets. Lindsay-Abaire came to one, and Coco noticed he had no drink, and asked him if he wanted anything. He asked for a glass of cranberry juice, if I remember right, and Coco went to find him one.
In the kitchen, she noticed an enormous novelty wine glass. And here she gave in to the imp of the perverse. She took that glass and filled it to the rim with cranberry juice, and then brought it to him. Probably because Lindsay-Abaire was used to getting served wine by her, he took the glass without looking, immersed in conversation, not noticing its hugeness. But, after a moment, the weight of the thing registered, and he glanced at it. “This is the biggest wine glass I have ever seen,” he said.
“No it isn’t,” Coco shot back. “You just have such tiny hands.”
A few weeks after the conference, when we had returned to Minneapolis, I found Coco clipping out a photo from a magazine. It was an ad for some restaurant, and the ad included a blurry shot of a family in the distance sitting around a table, eating a meal. I asked her what she was doing, and she pointed at the man in the photo.
“Doesn’t that look like David Lindsay-Abaire?” she asked.
It did. A little. So she cut it out and mailed it to him. And, once again obeying her particular imp, she wrote a note to accompany it expressing her surprise that Lindasy-Abaire had gone into professional modeling, and expressing her pleasure that it seemed to be going so well. She congratulated him and promised to keep an eye out for his next appearance in print advertising. And, since then, she has kept her eyes open for photographs that look vaguely like him. Perhaps she shall mail him an entire packet of the things in the future, although I may have just spoilt her prank for her.
Although this behavior probably confused Lindsay-Abaire, I feel quite certain he did not mind it. He has a fine sense of humor, to begin with. But, secondly, although it is not billed as an actual character in “Shrek: The Musical,” the entire play is dominated by the imp of the perverse.
This could have been a lazy creation. It would have been quite possible to take the screenplay for “Shrek” and convert it to the stage. I have seen a lot of musicals that do this, and inevitably suffer for it. As much deserved grief as director Julie Taymor currently gets for her Spider Man musical, her stage adaptation of “The Lion King” carefully and quite dramatically re-conceived the musical for the stage. Smart playwrights have followed suit since, and Lindsay-Abaire and his collaborator Jeanine Tesori, who wrote the music, are smart. “Shrek: The Musical” is not “Shrek” the movie. Neither is it William Steig’s book that inspired both. It’s completely a thing of the stage, and it exhumes themes that the film and the book just touched on. And, more than any other, the theme it is most interested in is as follows: Whatever makes us different also makes us powerful.
You probably already know the story, but, if not, here’s as brief an encapsulation as I can provide: A troll and a talking donkey accept a quest from an evil prince to rescue a princess, who herself suffers a curse. Many elements from the film are maintained, including the look of the characters, Shrek’s Scottish accent, and the fact that it takes place in a world of fairy tale creatures who know their own fairy tales and riff on them relentlessly.
But I mentioned the imp of the perverse, didn’t I? One of the ways this mischievous creature controls the play is in the production’s love of stage effects. The play is filled with quick transformations, extraordinary monsters, and images of the fantastic that are generally produced by choosing the creakiest legerdemain possible, being quite obvious about the sleight-of-hand that is occurring, and then referencing it directly.

The villain, Lord Farquaad, is diminutive in stature, and this effect is created by taking a regular-sized actor, attaching spindly legs to his upper thighs, and then having him walk around on his knees. The princess dances with a deer at one moment, and it is clearly an inflatable dummy that she simply drags around the stage with her. She later dances with some rodents, and the effect is created by having a row of tap dancers wear shoes that look like rats. There is a great deal of puppetry in this, including a really enormous, and impressive, stage dragon. And the set moves about constantly, opening and closing to reveal new backdrops, a trick beloved by Victorian melodramas and updated by having what looks to be a giant LED screen at the back of the stage that can transform into whatever is needed.
But it isn’t just the set or the stage effect that is mischievous. Everybody in the cast is varying degrees of daffy. This includes the Donkey, played as a sort of cheerful Little Richard by Alan Mingo, Jr. It also includes the princess, played by Haven Burton with a tendency to have non-musical moments, such as laughter, suddenly trail off into high, musical trills. In fact, the most traditionally monstrous character, Shrek, played by Eric Peterson, is the most humane in the musical: He has been so repeatedly damaged by society’s rejection of his grotesque looks that he nurses a constant ache about it, and when that ache is stung again he positively seems like he’s about to have a nervous breakdown onstage.
But it’s almost always the villain who gets to have the most fun, and Farquaad, played by David F.M. Vaughn, is a camp masterpiece: There is no bit of misbehavior he won’t delight in, and, with his pageboy haircut and giggling mannerisms, he comes off as one of those naughty schoolboys from 1930s boys boarding school movies as reimagined by John Waters. He’s supposed to be the bad guy, but one gets the sense that he’d be an awful lot of fun at parties, and it’s easy to imagine Farquaad and my girlfriend sneaking off to a back room with a stack of magazines and a scissors to look for photographs that resemble David Lindsay-Abaire.