Central to any theatrical production is suspension of disbelief. A weak plot point, an actor dropping a line, even bad lighting can be enough to break the illusion, pulling the audience mentally back from the world of the play and into the world at large.
That’s why it’s so frustrating that the hardest element to accept in the new Boulder’s Dinner Theater production of Shrek the Musical is the title character himself.
In the animated film on which the play is based, a giant green ogre named Shrek lives alone in a swamp, an arrangement that is fine by him, until the day a group of fairy tale creatures recently evicted from the nearby kingdom set up camp, ruining the whole “alone” part of living alone. Shrek travels to the castle to convince the king to take back the creatures. The king, who kicked them out as part of his Stepfordization plan, agrees, provided Shrek jump through the proper hoops, which sends him on a hero’s quest involving princesses and dragons in the grand tradition of fairy tales everywhere.
The script follows the plot of the first Shrek film with the addition of songs by Jeanine Tesori and David Lindsay-Abaire. And on the whole, the show is something of a marvel for a stage of that size, featuring motorized sets and prop elements equivalent to shows this reporter has seen on Broadway. An enormous four-operator dragon puppet was especially impressive, evoking some of the spirit of the ground-breaking stage production of War Horse.
All but for Shrek himself.
Most of the characters were handled with fairly simple costume elements that got the job done, or stunningly made puppets — the first appearance of the puppet Gingerbread Man is truly hilarious and one of the show’s best moments. But Shrek was created through an elaborate makeup job that seemed to leave the character mired in the “uncanny valley,” a theory in robotics about how, past a certain threshold of realism, a robot or simulated living creature ceases to become nearer to the living creature and begins to become a living creature that has something wrong with it. The highly realistic but discomforting animation of The Polar Express or Beowulf are both considered prime examples of characters stuck in the uncanny valley, their realism undermining their ability to suspend disbelief and becoming their undoing. While the character of Donkey (a talking donkey) is played by Tyrell Rae in a hooded furry jumpsuit with hooves and some brown facepaint, a not-remotely photorealistic costume that is totally sufficient to get the idea across, Shrek has a large green headpiece poked with airholes, the seam of which can be seen ringing actor Seth Caikowski’s face.
Then there are facial prosthetics and a padded body suit that restrict his movements.
While Caikowski’s vocal delivery is pitch-perfect, nailing Mike Myers’ original character to a tee, the prosthetics and padded suit make the depiction somewhat flat in a physical sense. He can’t control the subtle movements of a padded suit or a fake nose the way an actor can control their stomach or their shoulders or the muscles in their face. He isn’t closer to being Shrek, he’s Shrek with something slightly off.
It’s especially odd as a second ogre character whose makeup is applied much more hastily for plot reasons I’ll not spoil here on the off-chance you haven’t seen the film is actually less of a sore thumb visually, and the costume is less restrictive of the performance’s nuance.
While in a perfect world, remakes and adaptations wouldn’t bear the cross of critical comparision, each analyzed independently as its own work, that link is present in the mind of anyone familiar with the source material and therefore must be acknowledged. And while it’s probably even less fair to compare a stage production to an animated film, there are critical differences between the mediums that affect the depictions.
Shrek, the film, works not just because of the clever writing and cultural references, but because of what Scott McCloud described in his book, Understanding Comics, as the picture plane. It is a triangular graph in which one corner represents photorealism, another symbolism and the third abstraction. Every image falls somewhere in that triangle. McCloud writes that while photorealism represents a specific object, symbolism represents that object conceptually, so while a photograph of a person would represent one specific person with all their nuanced emotional complications, bad hair days and personal quirks, a stick figure just represents the idea of a generic person free of all that baggage. Moving away from photorealism and towards symbolism through the use of cartoonish animation makes it easier to suspend disbelief for more absurd, outlandish content, like a stick figure telling a terrible joke or, say, a giant green ogre going on a hero’s quest.
However, a photorealistic stage play of the same material is a slightly tougher sell, which is why that one costume shortcoming is so hard to ignore.
But the thing about that sore thumb sticking out is the reason it’s so noticeable is largely because of how clean the rest of Shrek The Musical is. Rae’s energetic, braying performance steals the show as Donkey, the staging is top-notch, and the writing is every bit as clever as the film, working in new gags and cultural references, as well as fun song and dance numbers and a truly epic fart battle. My viewing companion — who has seen the film far more times than myself — even remarked how she was particularly pleased and impressed with the way that several of the gags from the film were re-imagined for the stage rather than being cut. The only people really likely to leave Boulder’s Dinner Theater grousing about the uncanny valley and visibility of the spirit gum are estheticians and the sort of curmudgeons that think a good solid harrumphing amongst friends is a thrilling way to spend a Friday night. For everyone else, Shrek The Musical is good, light-hearted fun that keeps the spirit of the theater alive.