Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
Christopher is both exceptional and absolutely like all of us. His exceptionality stems from his utter brilliance at all things mathematic and from the characteristics of Asperger's Syndrome, a high-functioning placement on the spectrum of Autism disorder (though author Haddon has denied that he had this diagnosis in mind when he created Christopher). Yet, like all of us, he needs to feel safe in his environment and with the people around him, and he needs to understand the events of his life in a way that makes sense. The story is presented completely from his point of view and his absolutely literal understanding of events and conversations. Christopher awakens one day to find Wellington, a dog belonging to his neighbor Mrs. Shears, has been stabbed to death with a pitchfork. As he crouches over the dog, Mrs. Shears appears and accuses Christopher of killing Wellington. In short order a policeman is summoned who questions him about the dog. When Christopher reacts violently to being touched by the officer (one of the manifestations of autism), he is taken to the police station.
His father Ed straightens things out with the police and orders Christopher to drop his intent to find out who killed Wellington. For the past two years, Ed has been a single parent, and though he tries his level best, Christopher is a challenge. Siobhan, Christopher's teacher at the special school he attends, urges him to follow his father's advice and to write about the incident. Later on, she suggests he turn his story into a class play. This device allows Siobhan to act at times as a narrator, and at other times to assume the voice of Christopher or other characters. This might have been confusing, but as written and directed, it absolutely works, drawing the audience in to a story that casts a spell, making it impossible not to lean in, eager to know the next step in Christopher's journey.
Of course, Christopher does not heed his father, and inquires of the neighbors regarding Wellington's murderan act of considerable social bravery on Christopher's part. He is befriended by Mrs. Alexander, an elderly neighbor who treats him with kindness and understanding and reveals more than she intended, not just about Wellington, but about Mrs. Shears and her ex-husband Roger, Christopher's father, and Christopher's mother, who he believes to have died two years ago. As he digs deeper, Christopher finds his narrow view of the world inadequate. As he states, instead of one mystery to solve, now he has two: who killed Wellington, and what is the truth about his mother? The more questions arise, the less safe he feels. In what, for Christopher, is an epic journey, he ventures out on his own and finds his way from his small, safe town to the heart of London, in search of both truth and safety.
At every step of the story, lights and video projections show what Christopher is experiencing internally, his mind unable to process emotions without transforming them into logical statements from which dispassionate decisions can be made. This is sometimes endearingsuch as his diagrammatic thinking about why a person would kill Wellington: 1) They hated Wellington, 2) they are crazy, or 3) they wanted to make Mrs. Shears sad. At other times, the panic-inducing lights, images and flashing words, augmented by a cacophony of sound, depict the horror Christopher feels as he encounters the London tube (subway) for the first time. The amazing contributions of design work by Paule Constable (lighting), Finn Ross (video), and Ian Dickson (sound) cannot be underestimated.
This is not to diminish the quality of Simon Stephens' script, which closely follows Haddon's book but adds the dimension of storytelling to the narrative. Another phenomenal contribution is made by choreographers Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett. Scenes in which Christopher finds himself lost in a sea of strangers on the streets of London or in the tube are not merely staged, but choreographed, creating movement in which, despite the chaos, everyone seems connected to a place except for Christopher. In other scenes, such as Christopher's tender remembrance of an outing to the beach with his mother or his fantasy of being an astronaut, movement depicts the fleeting possibility of pleasure for this ever-serious boy. Obviously, Marianne Elliott's direction is key to bringing together these fantastic elements, for the script says nothing about lighting, video, sound or movement. It is her genius that makes the parts whole.
The role of Christopher is monumental, requiring a young actor to be on stage for the entirety of both acts, to project dialogue drenched with language, to maintain a rigid persona that at intervals combusts into flares of anger or retreats into womb-like balls, chanting a memorized list of prime numbers to keep from imploding, and yet is achingly fragile. Adam Langdon completely filled the demand of the role at the opening performance (Benjamin Wheelwright plays the part on Thursday evenings, Saturday matinees, and Sunday evenings).
Gene Gillette as Ed conveys the crushing mix of love and frustration he feels for Christopher, and his desperate attempt to overcome past hurts and make a life for the two of them. Felicity Jones Latta as Judy beautifully etches a deeply flawed woman whose failure to thrive as a parent does not negate her love for her son. Maria Elena Ramirez as Siobhan is the ideal of a wise, patient, loving teacher who is able to penetrate walls around the hardest to reach students, while understanding the boundaries that must be maintained. The remainder of the cast shine in a variety of roles and the entire company, aside from Langdon, function as the ensemble for the many scenes of nameless humanity, sometimes even standing in for inanimate objects.
This 2015 Best Play Tony Award winner (having first won the Olivier award for Best Play in 2013) is that rare breed, a new play that had a successful, nearly two-year run on Broadway without benefit of marquee names or an established playwright. Most new plays, even with rave reviews and awards, last six months or less on Broadway, unless a name-brand celebrity steps in to extend the life of the production. People go to see "stars," not plays. But The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time was something else. Word got out that his was something special, a play and a production that excites and moves audiences. It depicts life through a lens unfamiliar to most people, yet told by a character who is disarming and relatable. It bursts with imagination and heart.
This first national tour maintains everything that is right about the play, the only misgiving being that, in the nature of tours, it plays in mammoth housesthe Orpheum, rather than the far more intimate Barrymore Theatre on Broadway. The upside of that is that it allows a greater number of people to see the production, which is in Minneapolis for only one week. Several years ago, theater lovers had the opportunity to see The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time on screen through the National Theatre Live broadcast of their London production. I saw that presentation and loved it then. Seeing it in person raises the impact and pleasure that radiate from this work to an even higher level. By all means, see it if you can.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time runs through December 4, 2016, at the Orpheum Theatre, 910 Hennepin Avenue, Minneapolis. Tickets: $39.00 - $134.00. For ticket information call 612-373-5661 or go to hennepintheatretrust.org. For more information on the tour, visit www.curiousonbroadway.com.
Writer: Simon Stephens, based on the novel by Mark Haddon; Director: Marianne Elliott; Set and Costume Design: Bunny Christie; Lighting Design: Paule Constable; Video Design: Finn Ross; Sound Design: Ian Dickson for Autograph; Choreography: Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett for Frantic Assembly; Music: Adrian Sutton; Hair Design: David Brian Brown; Dance and Fight Captain: Tim Wright; Casting: Daniel Swee, C.S.A and Cindy Tolan, C.S.A; Production Stage Manager: Kathleen E. Purvis. Stage Managers: Jay Carey and Kristin Newhouse; A National Theatre Production.
Cast: Brian Robert Burns (ensemble), Francesca Choy-Kei (ensemble), Gene Gillette (Ed, ensemble), John Hemphill (Roger Shears, ensemble), Robyn Kerr (ensemble), Adam Langdon (Christopher Boone), Felicity Jones Latta (Judy, ensemble), Kathy McCafferty (Mrs. Shears, ensemble), J. Paul Nicholas (ensemble), Maria Elena Ramirez (Siobhan, ensemble), Geoffrey Wade (Reverend Peters, ensemble), Benjamin Wheelwright (Christopher Boone at Thursday, Saturday matinee and Sunday evening performances), Amelia White (Mrs. Alexander, ensemble).