The Thinking Man's Idiot

The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, artist, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.

Tale of the None-Too-Tall: ‘The Tale of Despereaux’ Musical at Berkeley Rep

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(Photo by Kevin Berne)

“My last words? ‘Life is no way to treat an animal, not even a mouse.’”
– Kurt Vonnegut, “I Love You, Madame Librarian”, In These Times magazine (6 August 2004)

It seems somehow appropriate that I spent Thanksgiving week attending shows based on renowned “family-friendly” stories. I’ve never been one to have a “Thanksgiving movie” (I’ve still never seen Planes, Trains, & Automobiles), and I actually spent this Thanksgiving hiking around SF, taking the photos you see in my Flickr feed. But with Thanksgiving often thought of as a family-gathering holiday, I see why certain films are bound to gather certain families around the telly as they hold off the inevitable awkward conversation around the dinner table.

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Despereaux (Dorcus Leung) finds a human ally in Princess Pea (Yasmeen Sulieman with ‘Despereaux’ puppet). Photo by Kevin Berne

I’ve never seen The Tale of Despereaux or read the book on which it was based. But then, you could say that about nine-out-of-every-ten shows I see at Bay Area Children’s Theatre. This obviously wasn’t a BACT show, but you’d never know it from the Roda lobby on opening night. I can scarcely recall seeing any kids attend Berkeley Rep shows, let alone the large volume I saw that night. And there we were, not one block away from the BACT, and the Roda looked as if it was putting on a production of If You Give a Mouse a Cookie.

This show had its own mouse, but no cookies. None that I recall, anyway. The mice took the form of Lydia Fine’s & Nick Lehane’s shadow-puppets, a series of handheld felt puppets (also designed by the couple), and performer Dorcas Leung playing the title character as a human with Princess Leia-style hair buns. Having never been to New York, I can’t say for sure whether or not this approach is typical of PigPen Theatre’s oeuvre. The production – from its leather-and-steampunk clothing to its Dustbowl-era aesthetic – reminded me so much of Fiasco Theatre’s production of Into the Woods that I had to make sure they weren’t the same troupe. Thankfully, PigPen avoided Fiasco’s mistake of adding four-letter words to their show. Y’know, for kids.

The Tale of Despereaux at Berkeley Rep (2019) - set

Set by Jason Sherwood. Photo by Me.

Familiarity with the source material not withstanding – the audience seemed to be pretty familiar with the stories and characters upon entering – it’s one’s willingness to accept PigPen’s particular production design that will decide whether or not you enjoy the show. No matter what I thought, the kids around me were both amused and restless, and the latter isn’t good for a show only 90 minutes long.

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The Librarian (Ryan Melia) sings the song of Despereaux with his fellow players (Betsy Morgan, Alex Falberg, Curtis Gillen, Ben Ferguson). Photo by Kevin Berne.

For those not familiar with the story: one day, a rat crawls up from the cellar of a kingdom to see the human revelry upstairs. Through no fault of his own, the little guy falls into the Queen’s soup, causing her to die of fright. This leads to a kingdom-wide ban of both mice and soup, because of course it does. Nearly a generation later, the ever-inquisitive mouse Despereaux is as eager to explore the human world as the infamous rat before him. But humans aren’t as welcoming, not having forgotten their late queen. But Despereaux is determined to tell his story to humans, the only way he knows how.

So, beneath all of the audience-mugging and admittedly catchy songs lies a story of wanting to rise above one’s station, finding bravery from within, and the danger of holding a descendent accountable for the crimes of their ancestors. If nothing else, it made me want to seek out the book. Yet, as much as I dug the songs, they began to get a bit redundant and overstay their welcome a bit. For a show roughly an hour-and-a-half, it often felt as if it took forever to get from one place to the other. What’s more, it occasionally seemed as if characters were thrown in just to get mentioned, rather than having any major bearing on the plot. For instance, the human character of Miggery Sow seems more of an afterthought rather than a crucial cog in the clockwork.

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The King (Arya Shahi) hasn’t warmed to mice like Despereaux (Dorcas Leung). Photo by Kevin Berne

Then there’s the staging itself. All of it is does really well, but one has to wonder if PigPen were just throwing everything at the wall and hoping it stuck? It would have gone better if they’d chosen one form of mouse representation – shadows, hand-puppets, human actors – and stuck with it. The human part sticks out like a sore thumb with none of the actors dressed as the animals they’re portraying. And yes, it’s possible that at least some of my reaction is based on the restlessness. But then, they were the key demo, right?

Though I wasn’t into the Depression-era aesthetic, Jason Sherwood’s stage design is eye-catching. It wasn’t until the end of the show that I realized the upstage wall was meant to be made of soup bowls. Similarly, Anita Yavich’s costumes looked nice, even if they didn’t look like anthropomorphic animals. Jennifer Jancuska’s choreo is a lot of fun to watch, especially inscenes when Despereaux is with his condescending siblings. And Christopher Jahnke’s musical direction is always entertaining, even when the songs don’t particularly go anywhere.

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Despereaux (Dorcus Leung, 2-R) introduces Antoinette (Betsy Morgan, right) to his sibling, Furlough and Merlot (Ben Ferguson and Yasmeen Sulieman). Photo by Kevin Berne

It’s not as if I hated the show, the story, or the performers. It just seemed to me that PigPen were trying too hard to distinguish their showcase of a story that seemed to stand on its own legs. As mentioned, the show is brief and fans of the book may be drawn in more than novices like I. But don’t be surprised of it paradoxical excess of minimalism goes over the heads of a few little ones.

GRADE:                                                            B-

The Tale of Despereaux is scheduled to run until the 5th of January on the Roda Stage of the Berkeley Rep Theatre.
The show runs roughly 1 hour 40 minutes with no intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.

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