Review: A magical mouse is the hero in wonderful ‘Despereaux’ at Berkeley Rep

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Dorcas Leung plays the title character in Berkeley Repertory Theatre’s “The Tale of Despereaux,” a new musical from PigPen Theatre Co., running through June 5th. (Kevin Berne photo)

Early in the wonderfully magical Berkeley Repertory Theatre production of “The Tale of Despereaux,” the narrator, aka the Librarian laments the plight of Despereaux, the little runt of a mouse that has experienced one of life’s great tragedies.

The tragedy didn’t come in the form of a glue trap or having to flee into a field. Despereaux’s melancholia came from having to accept the fact that a story was never read to him. The spunky mouse’s existence was one without a sense of wonderment – a life where precious words never combined to bring forth thoughts or ideas that led him into a sleepy dreamland. There were no long laughs or adventurous swashbuckling as his eyelids began to collapse. It was an existence without an imagination, one that no child should ever experience.

PigPen Theatre Co.’s delightful adaptation of the story originally penned by Kate DiCamillo is certainly a decadent production, with a stunning scenic design by Jason Sherwood. That setting creates the backdrop for this magnificent world of up and down, and while the set is lush and luscious, it’s the minimal touches that give the production such zest and zeal.

These components help to create a harmonious connection between story and teller, performed by a versatile, jovial band of performers who sing, dance, play instruments and engage in the merriment of a story. That story is chock-full of characters who chase their honor with a hard H.

The young mouse Despereaux (a radiant, youthful turn from Dorcas Leung) is enamored with stories, and although he is tiny and weak, he possesses a persistence that is the envy of those twice his size. The sickly, big-eared little mouse finds a book and falls in love with the story, the tale of a knight who saves a princess, with the happily ever after tag slapped on mightily.

One of the signature aspects of the play is how full and rich the characters are, loaded with multiple dimensions that give them such shape and texture. The rat Roscuro (a highly charged John Rapson) is a great combination of dastardly evil and illuminating light. His name comes from the painting technique chiaroscuro, a style that creates parallel visions utilizing both light and dark. There is the great, painful irony for Roscuro – plenty of darkness rests within him, but in his mind, no light will ever enter his soul.

The technique is a through line in the play, a visual leitmotif that manifests in so many wonderful ways, namely in the use of shadow puppetry and projections. Not only does the visual imagery figure in to so many subtle yet powerful directing touches by director Marc Bruni (Broadway’s “Beautiful”) and PigPen, who are also credited in the directing, but in a true stroke of brilliance, all of the characters are dealing with their own personal versions of light and dark.

One of the piece’s strength is based on its ability to cohere, and the versatility of the performers guarantee a commitment to telling the story with its multiple plots. In addition to Leung as Despereaux, Betsy Morgan as the empathetic Miggery Sow among other characters plays her moments with an empathetic flair. Dan Weschler is quite hilarious as the Stained Glass Knight. And Ryan Melia as the Librarian and Prisoner has some of the most poignant music of the production, peaking with the beautiful and haunting “Love is Ridiculous.”

The piece’s unity comes from wonderful technical aspects, including Donald Holder’s lighting, Anita Yavich’s costumes, Jennifer Jancuska’s choreography and the wonderfully hilarious and smart puppetry of Lydia Fine and Nick Lehane. The sequences of rapidity between puppet to human, especially in a wild fight scene in the play’s denouement is something that thrills both children and adults alike.

The ultimate power of this piece is in its ability to stay poignant for adults but never condescend to children. Because whether a person is five years old or 500 years old, a story of heroism, love, magic and loss will always send us to sleep with a smile on our face and a needle sword at the ready.

WHAT TO KNOW IF YOU GO

Berkeley Repertory Theatre presents “The Tale of Despereaux, a New Musical”
Book Music and Lyrics by PigPen Theatre Co.
Based on the 2003 novel by Kate DiCamillo and the Universal Pictures Film
The Word: An absolutely magical piece with high theatrical values, a play that manages to be both grand in scale yet minimal at the same time. It’s a show that understands the importance and value of a great story. Is Broadway next?
Stars: 5 out of 5
The Roda Theatre
2025 Addison Street, Berkeley, CA
Running Time: 95 minutes with no intermission
Through Jan. 5th
Tickets range from $35 – $100
For tickets, call (510) 647-2949 or visit www.berkeleyrep.org

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