Once upon a time, in a land far, far away, there lived a big green ogre named Shrek. He was all alone, with no friends and no one to love or love him back.
Not so long ago, in a small Midwestern suburb, there lived a boy named Eric. He was into cartooning, baseball’s Chicago Cubs and, in football season, Da Bears.
This is the story of how the giant creature and the little kid from Carol Stream, Ill., came together to live happily ever after in a big, bright, beautiful world.
Eric — last name Petersen — grew up to become a husband, dad and New York actor. He played Papa Ogre, the Straw Pig and even the main monster a few times in Shrek: The Musical on Broadway, when replacement actors were hired. He has some nice regional theater credits and is a frequent guest on TV’s “Law & Order,” but his full-time status as title ogre in this Shrek national tour is his biggest gig to date.
It almost didn’t happen.
Even though Eric did theater in high school (the Scarecrow in The Wizard of Oz, the Leading Player in Pippin, one of Noel Coward’s ill-mannered Brits in Hay Fever), he thought his future was in cartooning. That changed as high school morphed into college, at Bradley University in Peoria, Ill. Eric acted constantly there (Jesus in Jesus Christ Superstar, Bottom in A Midsummer Night’s Dream, the dashing Sky Masterson in Guys and Dolls, the talented but self-absorbed jazz trumpeter/father in Warren Leight’s Side Man).
After graduation he found himself at the Barn Theatre, Michigan’s oldest professional summer stock company. One season there, he reasoned, and he’d be off to the West Coast to do the television and movie thing.
Then he met a girl.
Lisa Marie Morabito, by name. An actress. One who saw her future in New York. So Eric adjusted his compass and headed east. They married in October 2007 and now have a 9-month-old daughter named Sophia.
“That was a good decision I made there,” he says, a smile in his voice.
The Petersens learned they were pregnant just before Shrek closed on Broadway. Sophia made her entrance on the national tour’s second day in, of all places, Chicago, Dad’s hometown. The family is traveling with Shrek, a tour that began last July and is scheduled to end this July in Los Angeles. Home base is a place in Midtown Manhattan’s Hell’s Kitchen.
They’re having a blast. “We look at it as a really cool adventure for our family,” Eric says. “I like living in hotels. I like having somebody who cleans the room every day when you leave and changes the sheets.”
Shrek, in a way, completes a circle for Petersen. He was a leading man in high school and college but got mostly character roles in New York – largely at Theatreworks U.S.A., the nation’s largest theater for family audiences. His biggest role previously was as William Barfée (“that’s BARR-fay, with an accent aigu … ”), the nasally nerd with the magic foot, in the national tour of The 25th Annual Putnam Country Spelling Bee, which launched at Atlanta’s Alliance Theatre.
Shrek puts Petersen’s feet firmly back, albeit flatulently, on leading man ground.
“It’s a huge honor to be trusted with the franchise,” he says, recognizing his responsibilities as top man in a major musical. One is leadership, another preparation. Petersen re-watched all the Shrek animated movies to find his inner ogre, and went back to the source material, William Steig’s 1990 children’s book.
And how that ogre – the word “shrek” means “monster” in Yiddish and “terror” or “fright” in German – has grown! This cast has more characters (nearly 50) than Steig’s little book has pages (32).
Still, life upon the swampy stage isn’t all bright lights and glory. For the guy playing Shrek, it can get downright boggy. Without trying, Eric lost 40 pounds during his first seven months on the road. The fat suit he wears eight times a week weighs 45 pounds. It takes 90 minutes to put on his movie-caliber makeup and 45 minutes to take it off. He wears ice packs on his chest and back to keep his core temperature down; by intermission they’ve melted and must be replaced. He drinks more than 140 ounces of water to stay hydrated during each performance and, should Mother Nature call, uses the little ogre’s room in full costume via a specially designed, strategically placed opening.
Despite it all, for Petersen it all comes down to one actor playing a role to the best of his ability.
“The trick is just finding the emotional core and truth of somebody’s story,” he says. “Then you just try to live that as honestly as you can onstage.”
Kathy Janich is an Atlanta theater artist and freelance writer. After years in daily newspapers, she’s found a joyous second career as an artistic associate at Atlanta’s Synchronicity Theatre. Visit synchrotheatre.com.