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Theater Review: “The Tale of Despereaux"

“The Tale of Despereaux” plays through August 11, 2019 on The Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park.
Photo credit:
Bianca Norwood as Despereaux: photo by Jim Cox

A mouse falls in love with a princess, becomes a knight and saves the day in PigPen Theatre Co.’s latest offering at The Old Globe.

“The Tale of Despereaux,” based on the Newbery Award-winning fantasy novel by Kate DiCamillo, is in its world premiere through Aug. 11 at The Old Globe. Mark Bruni worked with PigPen on the direction.

Despereaux is a little tiny mouse with very big ears, the last born of the litter and the only one born alive. His mother Antoinette (Betsy Morgan), thinking of the despair of “all that work” and only one baby, named the newborn “despair-eaux.”

If that sounds a bit depressing for a children’s book, know two things: this is a special book, and PigPen does not do “standard” theater. DiCamillo includes adult concepts, and PigPen uses an unusual combination of music, shadow puppetry, a little magic and lots of imagination. So “Despereaux” is a wild ride into the land of the unexpected.

Despereaux is a mouse with big dreams and extraordinary curiosity. And when  Despereaux catches a glimpse of the lovely Princess Pea (Taylor Iman Jones), the mouse falls in love and wants to become a “cuh-night” (knight) to protect her.

But mice don’t do that, and after being ratted out by father Lester (Alex Falberg), Despereaux is called before the Mouse Council and sent to the dungeon for associating with humans. The dungeon is where the feared rats live.

Despereaux will meet and befriend (sort of) a rat cleverly named Chiaroscuro (Roscuro for short) – named for the art technique of combining light and darkness. It turns out that Roscuro (Eric Petersen), unlike a normal rat – likes the light, but has been relegated to the dungeon after an accident landed him in the Queen’s soup, after which she died.

Despereaux will also befriend a girl named for a pig – Miggery Sow (Betsy Morgan), sold by her father into service with royal cook Louise (Curtis Gillen). Miggery’s misery is expressed this way: “It ain’t the hard work or the dirt and grime. It’s just the feeling I don’t matter.”

Both Roscuro and Miggery Sow have issues that could (and do) trigger thoughts of revenge. Despereaux’s mission is to bring them all (but mostly the princess, distraught after the loss of her mother) back to the light.

The PigPen gang has penned some fine songs for this show. The most impressive is “Dark Beautiful World,” a grim little number sung by the rats to a sort of cracked waltz time.

“Love Is Ridiculous,” sing Despereaux and a Prisoner (Ryan Melia), but they agree that it is also wonderful.

The original seven members of PigPen are all male, and all play instrument(s); in this production they often swap them. Some also play characters. The group plays together as a band when not performing in a play.

For this show they’ve added four new talents to the mix. Bianca Norwood, still in school at Juilliard, is excellent as the curious, fearless (well, brave) Despereaux, with a big, fine voice. Taylor Iman Jones is charming as the Princess Pea, and Betsy Morgan (not new to the Globe) is touching as Miggery Sow. Jones and Morgan also have powerful voices.

Eric Petersen is also new (and excellent) as Roscuro, the rat who loves the light.

Jason Sherwood’s almost ceiling-high library set gives the storybook feel, as does the shadow puppetry by Lydia Fine and Nick Lehane.

Anita Yavich’s costumes could (appropriately) be anywhere, anytime. Sound and lighting are nicely handled by Nevin Steinberg and Isabella Byrd, respectively.

PigPen Co. is like no other theater company, and this show is proof. Here’s to many more visits from this fine group.

The details

“The Tale of Despereaux” plays through August 11, 2019 on The Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park.

Tuesday through Friday at 7 pm; Saturday and Sunday at 12 and 5 pm.