Tales are best understood as stories that evolve over long exposure to appreciative audiences. They are variations on mighty, inherited themes. Anybody can tell a story but a lot of evolution must happen before they become legendary or mythic.
PigPen Theatre Co. is comprised of seven guys who met at Carnegie Mellon University a dozen years ago and continue to work together as a unit. They play music, write and stage theatre pieces and tinker with classic stage technology like puppets and lighting in a manner often charming. For their last visit to the Old Globe Theatre, they brought something called The Old Man and the Old Moon, an ancientesque folk tale hot off their post-grad imaginations and quirky enough to inspire chuckles and some random memories.
This time, they’ve taken a children’s book, brought in four more performers and crafted their folkish songs into a formal musical theatre format for a show titled The Tale of Despereaux. Just as The New Yorker Magazine used to report week after week during the decades when The Fantasticks was still in its original run, “the whimsey is as thick as that.”
Personally, I never heard of Despereaux before now. One Kate DiCamillo had some success with the book in 2003. And an animated film version floated past on the way to streaming-land sometime thereafter. But it’s been a long time since I was involved in any way with children’s books not written by Dr. Seuss, so when the guys write in the Globe program for the show, “We cherished the story when we read it as children…”, that leaves me to judge only what I see on the Globe’s mainstage.
And that’s pretty gooey. Not sturdy enough for the title “Tale.”
The Tale of Despereauxis a soup flavored with myth, fairy tale, beast tale, parable and romance, none too emphatic. It happens in that alternate universe of vaguely European fantasy which includes nearly everything from Aesop’s Fables and A Midsummer Night’s Dream to Beauty and the Beast and The Cat in the Hat, just not nearly as assertively. There is a lukewarm moral – be nice to everybody and forgive them their trespasses? – but such confused goings-on that it stays vague. I’m afraid it’s very hard to follow the story.
This Despereaux, you see, is a mouse. The name was supplied by his mother, apparently a French mouse. He grows up in a castle fallen on hard times. It seems the late queen died of fright when a rat fell from the chandelier into her bowl of soup and the grieving monarch has outlawed soup and even soup bowls. So, the peasants are drifting away to better-fed kingdoms and the mice face a crumb famine.
Princess Pea, named in pretty obvious reference to a richer tale, sings so beautifully that her voice enchants Des, who has grown up hanging out in the library, where humans never come, stuffing himself with stories of knights and ladies and dragons. There he meets a rat who, unlike the rest of his race, longs to rise out of the darkness and into the light.
There also is a domineering servant, just about the only one left, and the maid-of-all-work who works for her. Add in the king himself, several nasty rats and bully mice, a mysterious prisoner in the dungeon, and the librarian, who serves as narrator, and that’s more or less the cast of characters. Many have cutesy names, probably inherited from the book, but that’s beginning to over-strain my whimsical limits.
Besides, like the casual pseudo-folksongs, the character names just confuse the progress of the story. Eventually, everybody except Des and Pea so betray each other and various hopeless plights are so smoothed over with new information that nothing really falls into place and the mosaic remains hopelessly incomplete. As a metaphor, it’s mush. Happily ever after? The creators turn to irony edged with sarcasm to cobble up some kind of ending. Who let Voltaire in?
Performance-wise, the seven core guys are still as lunky and likeable as they were for the Moonshow. They still play their assortment of guitars, percussion, pipes, fiddle, accordion, piano and banjo with the same blithe insouciance and mutual delight. Ryan Melia is the go-to guy for narrative songs and Arya Shahi plays the gentle despot, but the others blend into anonymity.
The imports are headed confidently by young Bianca Norwood, a spunky miniature in the title role, and Eric Petersen as the featured rat. Taylor Iman Jones gives generously of her wistful charm as Pea and Betsy Morgan’s inability to make sense of the serving girl is entirely the script’s fault, I’d say, not hers.
Despite some moments of the clever stagecraft that made Moon memorable, this is a heavier and thus more depressing show. The puppetry (credited to Lydia Fine and Nick Lehane) never amounts to much. Isabella Byrd’s lighting plan is full of surprises and diversions. The Jason Sherwood scenery is amiable and folksy until suddenly there’s this massive, soaring drop of (I think) confiscated soup-bowls which soars above the stage in a textured excess that completely contradicts the rough-hewn informality of the basic set. And smells of overwhelmed budget, too.
The best visual aspect of the show is Anita Yavich’s collections of whimsical costumes, which make that word respectable again. There are bits of uniforms, court dress, formal-wear, lumberjack butch and what-all that at least are fun.
Maybe this all would work better if the irony were filtered out. Or at least kept in its place as one of various results from a well-told tale, instead of a dominant badge of our era’s cynicism.
(Continues on the main stage of the Old Globe Theatre at 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays and at noon and 5 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through Aug. 11, 2019.)