Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay

The Tale of Despereaux
Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Review by Patrick Thomas | Season Schedule

Also see Patrick's reviews of Bull in a China Shop and Mother of the Maid

Ben Ferguson, Dorcas Leung, and Yasmeen Sulieman
Photo by Kevin Berne/Berkeley Repertory Theatre
Every holiday season it seems theater companies program works that are either a) connected to the holiday (A Christmas Carol, The Nutcracker, The Santaland Diaries, A Christmas Story), b) suitable for young audiences, or (most often) c) both.

The Berkeley Repertory Theatre presentation of PigPen Theatre Co.'s The Tale of Despereaux falls solidly in the "b" category. That's not to say this story of a brave and curious little mouse doesn't have a bit of holiday spirit in its celebration of light ("The world is dark and light is precious."). After all, Christmas was a Christian replacement for pagan solstice festivals marking the beginning of lengthening days, and Hanukkah is known as the "festival of lights." Nor does it mean the show doesn't have some appeal for the adults who escort the youngsters to the theater.

The Tale of Despereaux began life as a Newbery Award-winning children's book (and is ranked 51st all time among children's novels in a survey by the School Library Journal) and has been transformed into an energetic musical featuring an onstage folk band, some simple—yet oh, so lovely—stagecraft, and charming performances by an engaging cast.

Despereaux (Dorcas Leung) is a mouse. Unlike most mice, he is born with his eyes open, exceptionally large ears, and insatiable curiosity. "My only surviving mouse," says his mother Antoinette (Betsy Morgan) when the rest of the litter has died, "and he is born .... curious." Unlike most mice, who take to eating books during the "crumb shortage," Despereaux would rather read them, relishing the exploits of heroes who succeed against long odds.

The aforementioned crumb shortage is the result of another adventurous rodent, a rat named Roscuro (John Rapson), short for Chiaroscuro, after the artistic term for the contrast between light and dark in painting. Just as Despereaux is unlike other mice, Roscuro is different from other rats. For, while rats prefer darkness, Roscuro is drawn to light, and one evening, while climbing on a chandelier in the castle where they all live, he falls into the queen's bowl of soup, causing her to die of shock, and for the king to decree an end to soup in specific and banquets in general. Hence, fewer crumbs for the rodents.

From here it's a quest for redemption and to overcome mistakes of the past. Despereaux will discover what heroism really means, Roscuro will show the humans not all rodents deserve to be stomped upon, and the humans will learn forgiveness through the example set by Despereaux and his family.

Although the story lacks the richness—and therefore some of the dramatic energy—of a novel (which left me less than fully engaged with the plot), pretty much every other element of The Tale of Despereaux reflects the excellence Bay Area audiences have come to expect from the pros at Berkeley Rep. The set (by Jason Sherwood) is soaring and spectacular, yet exhibits a rather homespun appeal that is perfectly matched to this small-scale tale, conveying a sense of being the smallest thing in the room—which is how Despereaux feels most of the time.

The staging—using simple projections, puppetry, shadow play, expanses of cloth that become walls, tables, and doorways—puts one in mind of itinerant troupes of players who had to carry the world on their backs as they roamed from town to town. When the guitars used by the players suddenly become paddles, it's hard not to be charmed by the low-fi loveliness of PigPen's endeavor.

PigPen Theatre Co.'s The Tale of Despereaux runs through January 5, 2020, in the Roda Theatre at Berkeley Repertory Theatre, 2025 Addison Street, Berkeley CA. Performances are Wednesday-Sunday at 7:00 p.m., with matinees Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m., with additional matinees Friday November 29, Friday December 17, and Thursday January 2. Tickets range from $35-$100. For tickets and information, visit or call the box office at 510-647-2949.