'Shrek' dragon pops into Tower District locales

The Fresno BeeSeptember 14, 2013 

Marc Gonzalez leads the operators of Dragon, a character from the movie Shrek, through the Tower District Wednesday, Sept. 11 in Fresno, Calif. Good Company Players will present "Shrek The Musical" Sept. 19-Nov. 10 at Roger Rocka's DInner Theater.

ERIC PAUL ZAMORA — Fresno Bee Staff Photo Buy Photo

Even for the Tower District, this is out of the ordinary.

The 16-foot dragon saunters down Olive Avenue. You might catch other fire-breathing creatures jaywalking, but this one follows all applicable traffic laws. Maybe it's because Dragon is purplish red and feels she stands out? The large-toothed beast lingers patiently at the corner of Olive and Wishon, waiting for the green light at the crosswalk. Next stop: a quick visit to the Chicken Pie Shop.

There, I've heard on good authority, she particularly likes the chicken barley soup.

For Good Company Players, which on Thursday opens "Shrek the Musical" at Roger Rocka's Dinner Theater, one of the big challenges was coming up with a suitable dragon for the show. On Broadway, designers built a massive animatronic version.

That option was clearly not in GCP's budget. Instead, the company turned to a solution that was embraced by the national tour of the show: a life-size puppet operated by cast members dressed in black but visible to the audience.

The national tour of "Shrek" that played at the Saroyan Theatre in April had a dragon operated by four cast members. So did a Visalia production in July put on by the Tulare County Office of Education Theatre Company.

At Roger Rocka's, with its smaller stage, only a three-person dragon would fit. But it's still plenty big. It won't be able to squeeze through the backstage door at the theater, so it will have to make its entrance through the front lobby.

And just who is Dragon, really?

The head is Marc Gonzalez, known for his dancing prowess in Good Company shows. He leads the way as Dragon moves, operating the head and shoulders with two metal guide poles.

Middle is Shawn Williams, who finds himself with an important role but a more limited field of vision. (As they say in Alaska, if you aren't the lead dog, the view never changes.)

And making up the rear is good sport Jesse McCoy. After last Wednesday's short parade through the Tower District, which moved Dragon from the GCP rehearsal hall a few blocks to the theater, he is philosophical (and a little sweaty) about the experience.

"It's like having your head up a dragon's butt," he says.

For designer Chris Mangels, this is actually the second dragon he's helped birth. He also designed the larger, four-person version for the Visalia production.

Mangels is a master puppeteer and designer. When his Fourth Wall Theatre Company did a production of "Avenue Q" last summer, all the puppets were made in-house.

For the GCP version, Mangels put his dragon experience to good use, using lighter materials. He estimates the puppet at 60 pounds. It's mostly made of reticulated foam, the kind used for speakers.

As the technology of stagecraft evolves, many Broadway productions these days are increasingly reliant on special effects. At the same time, the use of puppetry can sometimes be more effective than mechanical or computer-generated visuals.

Julie Taymor broke new ground with her use of Asian puppetry techniques in "The Lion King." When "Avenue Q" came along, producers made the decision to embrace the human part of the puppetry equation. Like the dragon operators in "Shrek," they wear black clothing, which helps them blend into the background, but they're clearly visible — and their choreographed movements (and expressions on their faces) add to the overall effect.

The show that really did it for me, however, was the stage version of "War Horse" on Broadway.

Three men brought Joey the Horse to life, one each to work the hind and front legs and the other to operate the head. The horse had a mechanical wooden quality in which you could clearly see the performers within, and an expressive face with a tender quality. The surprising thing was how easily the puppetry effect disappeared and the idea of "horse" cemented in my mind.

In a preliminary "Shrek" rehearsal before the parade for his dragon operators, Mangels offers some tips. Remember, he tells them, that you aren't invisible. The audience will see you. They'll mostly be looking at Dragon, but they get a sense of your motions as well. In fact, that's what gives the puppet a sense of personality.

"She's like a big hot dog spinning in the air," he says, watching the first awkward attempts across the floor of the rehearsal hall. "We want to give her some grace."

Indeed, after just a few minutes of practice, and later, walking down the street, the three operators start finding a rhythm to Dragon. She still doesn't seem very fierce — there's still a tentative feel to her motions. (Only a very polite dragon would use a crosswalk, after all.) There's time, however.

Before crossing Olive, she pops in for a quick visit to the Golden Chinese restaurant, a Tower District mainstay. In just a week she'll be terrorizing Shrek and Donkey, but for now she's just there to say hi.

Good thing sweet-and-sour dragon isn't on the menu.

IF YOU GO

"Shrek the Musical," Thursday through Nov. 10, Roger Rocka's Dinner Theater, 1226 N. Wishon Ave. gcplayers.com, (559) 266-9494. $29-$49.

The reporter can be reached at (559) 441-6373, dmunro@fresnobee.com and @donaldbeearts on Twitter. Read his blog at fresnobeehive.com.

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