It sounds like either some Zen riddle or a farmer’s declaration of mystification: What’s a mouse doing in the middle of a PigPen?
As it turns out, the mouse in this case is fictional: The fuzzy hero at the center of the children’s saga “The Tale of Despereaux.”
And the PigPen is, well, fanciful: It’s the name of the versatile theater troupe and touring band that’s bringing Kate DiCamillo’s book to San Diego’s Old Globe as a world-premiere musical.
This won’t be PigPen’s first turn at the Balboa Park theater: In 2017, the group teamed with the Globe on the West Coast premiere of “The Old Man and The Old Moon,” a fable-like tale that showcased the seven members’ extraordinary talents for melding storytelling, live musicianship and an inspired sense of the theatrical.
Now, PigPen puts up its most ambitious project yet with “Despereaux,” adapted both from DiCamillo’s Newbery Medal-winning 2003 book and the 2008 Universal Pictures animated film version.
But while “Old Man” may have made it to the stage before “Despereaux,” the new show actually has a longer history with the Globe. In fact, it first started coming together in 2016 — in the very same rehearsal hall where the men of PigPen (and yes, it’s an all-guy outfit) have gathered with co-director Marc Bruni on an early-summer morning to chat about the production.
You need a big room for a PigPen interview, because the members — Ryan Melia, Alex Falberg, Matt Nuernberger, Dan Weschler, Ben Ferguson, Curtis Gillen and Arya Shahi — prefer to talk as a group.
It can make for the conversational equivalent of a rugby scrum, as the septet of PigPen’ers ping off each other’s thoughts and one-liners about topics from movies to mice to the merits of soup — the latter of which figures prominently in “Despereaux.”
(When a middle-aged interviewer half-jokingly vouches for the virtues of Top Ramen, one member shoots back: “And when do you get your undergraduate degree?”)
“Despereaux,” which follows the adventures of a smart and brave but outcast mouse, is hardly the first story to center on an intrepid rodent: Examples of late include the movies “Ratatouille” and “An American Tail,” plus La Jolla Playhouse’s gleefully whacked-out political allegory “The Squirrels.”
So what it is about the beady-eyed likes of this new show’s central character that inspires storytellers?
“We were just talking about this, because a couple of the guys were watching ‘An American Tail,’” says Shahi, a San Diego native whose family left here when he was still a baby.
“The mouse is the embodiment of an unlikely hero. These little scurrying rodents, these little creatures, it’s them against the world. We actually had a song in the show for a long time called ‘Unlikely.’ That was kind of our way in: ‘Well, we’re writing a show about a mouse. What is symbolic about a mouse?’”
Despereaux is not the only rodent in the show, as it happens. Also playing an important part is Roscuro, a rat who, like Despereaux, looks at the world differently from those around him. (The light-loving rat’s name is drawn from “chiaroscuro,” the artistic term for bold contrasts between dark and light — a notion that figures prominently in PigPen’s own art, with its extensive use of shadow puppetry.)
It’s Roscuro who sets the story in motion when, seeking light and then following the scent of a delicious soup, he inadvertently causes the demise of a (human) queen. Soup is banished and so is Roscuro, by an angry princess; meanwhile, Despereaux is likewise exiled, and his own link to the princess sets up an eventual rodent showdown, complete with heroics and redemption.
All this time spent in the headspace of these furry creatures has had its impact on PigPen, says Weschler.
“Our relationships with mice have definitely changed,” he says with a laugh, noting the not-infrequent encounters the troupe’s members have with small creatures back in their home base of New York City. “I think we all switched to cruelty-free traps pretty shortly after we started writing this thing.”
Falling for a mouse
The match between PigPen and “Despereaux” came about after Chris Herzberger of Universal Theatrical Group saw a PigPen production of “The Old Man and The Old Moon” in Chicago, and then approached the group about adapting DiCamillo’s book.
“So we all read it and fell in love with the story,” says Weschler. “And we started looking at how we could make this happen.
“Pretty early on, the Old Globe expressed interest and gave us a room here for about a week and a half. We kind of wrote the first version of the first third of the show — including two songs that are still in the show — and a bunch of early-prototype visual stuff.”
As the group has developed the story with Bruni, whose Broadway credits include the Tony Award-winning “Beautiful: The Carole King Story,” they’ve had to figure out how to reconcile the contrasting story structures of the book and film.
“The book is told in four parts, and all four of those characters continue to appear in the show,” explains Bruni. “We’ve made the Despereaux story the spine that those other stories come off of. But it starts off with Roscuro wanting to see the light, climbing down stairs, and that launches the plot in motion, because as a result of that decision, the kingdom is kind of plunged into disorder and disarray.
“So Despereaux has to become a hero to save the kingdom. That overarching story arc then allows for going into a lot of other different stories. But I think in a way it’s more true to the tone of the book than of the movie.”
Shahi observers that “the movie was really influential early on, when we started looking at aesthetics. It’s just a really beautiful movie. And then puling from all the artists who we also were inspired by — the concept of chiaroscuro and that kind of painting.
“So it was really fun for us to kind of create our own path: ‘Here’s what the book did, here’s what the movie did; what is the best version of that to put onstage?’”
For Melia, “the movie kind of freed our brains, because it does go away from the book; it is its own thing. So it was nice to see that and know we were allowed to do that, even though we were told that what you need to do to make it a piece of theater is going to be different from those other two things.”
And as Nuernberger puts it: “I think we discovered in this process that the size and scale difference between the human world and the mouse world and the rat world is actually an important obstacle to remember in certain moments: That you are a mouse and I am a human, and that’s an unchangeable thing.”
One thing that’s changing in PigPen’s world this time around: “Despereaux” is the troupe’s first show to incorporate cast members from the outside.
Bianca Norwood, a student at New York’s Juilliard School, is making their professional debut as the title character. Broadway’s Taylor Iman Jones (“Head Over Heels,” “Groundhog Day”) is playing Princess Pea and Merlot.
The Broadway veteran Betsy Morgan (who also was in the Globe’s “Rain”) plays Miggery Sow and Antoinette. And Eric Petersen, who was in the Broadway cast of the La Jolla Playhouse-launched “Escape to Margaritaville,” plays Roscuro. (Natasha Harris and San Diego’s Devon Hunt and Michael Louis Cusimano are the swings.)
That idea of expanding the troupe’s horizons — of thinking outside the pigpen, as it were — seems embodied in every aspect of “Despereaux.”
“We came into this project from a place of knowing we wanted to grow,” as Shahi puts it. “In ourselves as artists, in our style as theater-makers, (and) in our sound as a band.”
Which seems true to a story about a little mouse with big dreams.
More music from the PigPen crew
As they did when they were here two years ago for the Globe’s “The Old Man and the Old Moon,” the members of PigPen Theatre Co. will perform a one-night-only concert in downtown San Diego.
Their show is Aug. 5 at the House of Blues, 1055 Fifth Ave. Doors open at 7 p.m.
Tickets are $15; call (619) 299-2583 or go to houseofblues.com/sandiego.
‘Despereaux’ goes sensory-friendly
The Old Globe has been a pioneer in offering sensory-friendly performances of its productions, geared toward those on the autism spectrum and their families. (The idea has become a longstanding tradition with the theater’s annual holiday musical “Dr. Seuss’s How the Grinch Stole Christmas!”)
Now the Globe and PigPen Theatre Co. will bring “The Tale of Despereaux” into the sensory-friendly fold with a special performance at noon July 20. The show will include toned-down sound and lighting effects and other considerations.
The performance will be preceded by a Globe AXIS event on Copley Plaza outside the theater, featuring an acoustic-music set by the PigPen troupe from 10 to 11 a.m., and then sensory-friendly activities from 11 a.m. to noon, hosted by the San Diego actor-director and teacher Samantha Ginn (a major force in special-needs inclusion here).
Go here for more information.
‘The Tale of Despereaux’
When: In previews. Opens July 13. 7 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays; 12 and 5 p.m. Saturdays-Sundays. Through Aug. 11.
Where: Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, Balboa Park.
Tickets: $30 and up
Phone: (619) 234-5623