The Tale of Despereaux is a castration fable disguised as a children’s story. Not only does a kitchen cook chop off the titular character’s mouse tail, but an evil rat suffers the same fate. That’s two, count ’em, two terrifying moments when the men in the audience crossed their legs unconsciously as a natural form of defense. While the Freudian and #TimesUp undertones aren’t actually that explicit, the story does posit a cross-species form of infatuation.
In PigPen Theatre Co.’s musical adaptation of Kate DiCamillo’s novel, our murine hero Despereaux (Dorcas Leung) falls in love with the very pleasant Princess Pea (Yasmeen Sulieman). As in all fairy tales, he has a wish to transcend the limitations of his life, and, in this case, his nonhuman self. His family appropriately, if histrionically, reacts badly to Despereaux’s delusional idea of pursuing a romance, royal or otherwise, with someone who isn’t a mouse. To deal with their unruly child, the best solution they come up with is to banish him to the dungeon. It’s the equivalent of sending a rebellious teenager to a boarding school. He becomes somebody else’s problem to sort out.
But the dungeon is where a coterie of red-eyed rats dwell, along with the gnawed bones of the critters they’ve preyed upon. PigPen has come up with some ingenious ways of conveying the pint-sized perspective of all these rodents. As they scurry about in the dark, each rat actor, dressed in black, holds up two red LED lights. You can feel Despereaux’s panic when he arrives in the dungeon and strains to find a courageous inner self. He’s a hero, of sorts, in the making.
Botticelli (Matt Nuernberger) is his crafty rat nemesis. He has a wish of his own that runs parallel to Despereaux’s. Botticelli reasonably asserts that he longs to live up above in the daylight world. Nuernberger’s solo in “Dark Beautiful World” expresses his yearning the way that Ariel does in The Little Mermaid, but with an expertly drawn undertone of menace. It’s hard not to feel sympathy for him, until he starts to use dastardly means to achieve his ends.
When Despereaux is in the same room as the human inhabitants of the castle, PigPen breaks out a small stuffed animal. A variety of actors’ hands move it the way a puppeteer would. The cute white-whiskered mouse darts across tables and under chairs while Leung remains on stage. Her presence is a satisfying antidote to ventriloquism. And, to reinforce the illusion that we’re listening to a talking animal, Leung’s topknots have been braided to suggest the ears on a Mickey Mouse cap.
The production also projects shadow puppets with an effect that recalls antique magic lanterns. A parchment-colored screen will suddenly appear on stage as the spotlight narrows down on it to show a circle of dancing mice. PigPen creates a convincing imaginary world by combining different yet complementary visual approaches. The effects mirror each other but aren’t merely self-reflective. They face outwards too to bring the audience into the story.
The actors and technicians in the PigPen Theatre troop are determined to entertain us, down to every last detail. There’s a subplot about everyone’s love of soup in the kingdom. So the scenic and lighting designers, Jason Sherwood and Donald Holder, respectively, teamed up to create a wall of soup pots to decorate the backdrop. Throughout the show, Holder changes the color of the lights to blue or green or orange and the pots cast those shifting, shimmering moods across the stage. The pots are an organic part of the story and double as stones in the castle walls.
Musically, PigPen’s seven principles create a forceful, percussive wall of sound like The Decemberists or The Lumineers (yes, that means there’s an accordionist in the mix). Not one of them is ever out of time or out of tune. No one could accuse them of being under-rehearsed. Only the lyrics seemed to have gotten trapped in the insular world of a theater group. The words were too sophisticated (and often too complex) for younger kids and fairly square for teenagers. The Tale of Despereaux’s message then must be aimed at everyone’s inner child. Or at least the ones who’ve escaped from the nightmare of their parents’ dungeon.
The Tale of Despereaux,
through Jan. 5 at Berkeley Rep, 2015 Addison St., Berkeley. $60-$100; 510-647-2949 or berkeleyrep.org