Regional Reviews: San Diego
The Tale of Despereaux
Despereaux (Bianca Norwood), a young mouse in the kingdom of Dor, travels to the castle's library and quickly learns about legendary heroes. Following a conversation with a stained-glass knight (Dan Weschler), the mouse decides that he wants to be a hero and promptly falls for the kindhearted Princess Pea (Taylor Iman Jones). In attempting to protect her from danger, the hero-in-training faces many obstacles. Conflicts occur, because most of the humans who live in Dor despise rodents, and all the mice that he's close to share a reciprocal dislike and distrust of humans. The plot takes off, as Despereaux embarks on his quest.
Music played an important part in PigPen's production of the The Old Man and the Old Moon, and this score, featuring a mix of folk music, comedy and ballads, is just as crucial to The Tale of Despereaux. "Every Story Starts/Spark in the Dark" introduces the audience to the kingdom of Dor, and songs such as "We Know Better" and "Hey, You Know Me" use catchy choruses and amusing lyrics to enhance some key situations. Other numbers, such as "Love Is Ridiculous" and "Back to the Light," effectively bring a sense of pathos to some of the sadder events in the story. The only song that is somewhat repetitious is "Simple Daughter," sung by Princess Pea's servant girl Miggery Sow (Betsy Morgan), about her desire to rule the kingdom. It's rather similar in message to the earlier duet "With a Needle and Thread." This is minor, however, and the talent on display from the artists, several of whom play in the orchestra, is impressive.
The story presents the lives of four major characters: Despereaux; Princess Pea; Miggery; and Roscuro (Eric Petersen), a rat who goes through a big arc. Despereaux progresses through the different stages of the classical hero's journey, and Princess Pea and Miggery end up being more profound and thoughtful than they initially appear. One character that could benefit from more stage time is Princess Pea's father, King Phillip (Arya Shahi). Following the opening song, Phillip becomes resentful after losing his wife, and his manner and personality drastically change. However, they abruptly change again toward the end. A few extra moments on stage could strengthen his character development and make this progression clearer.
The members of PigPen wrote the script and co-direct the adventure with Marc Bruni. Their staging smartly differentiates between humans and mice. This happens primarily when Despereaux is featured. While he and the other mice look like normal people when conversing with each other, a miniature puppet is used when humans are present. Jason Sherwood's scenery, Isabella Byrd's lighting, Nevin Steinberg's audio, and Lydia Fine and Nick Lehane's shadow sequences and puppets create a world that can enchant children and adults alike.
With an ensemble that includes PigPen members and "friends," Norwood has a wide-eyed innocence in playing Despereaux and a strong physical presence. As Princess Pea and Miggery, Jones and Morgan (they play several characters) sing beautifully while depicting a touching friendship. The most dramatic performances are by Petersen and Ryan Melia, the latter playing both a librarian narrator and a prisoner in the kingdom. With their emotional vocals and commanding acting, the co-stars give depth to their well-written roles. Many of the supporting performers, such as Curtis Gillen, Weschler and Matt Nuernberger, play comic relief parts and get plenty of laughs during the performance.
You're practically guaranteed to leave The Old Globe touched by the plot and in awe of the craftsmanship of PigPen. We would happily welcome their return to San Diego following the run of this show.
The Tale of Despereaux, through August 11, 2019, presented by The Old Globe Theatre and PigPen Theatre Co. in association with Universal Theatrical Group, at The Old Globe, Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, 1363 Old Globe Way, San Diego CA. Performances are Sundays through Saturdays. Tickets start at $30.00 and can be purchased online at www.theoldglobe.org or by phone at 619-234-5623. For more information on PigPen Theatre Co., visit www.pigpentheatre.com.