Regional Reviews: Chicago
Britain's Marianne Elliott, in staging Simon Stephens' adaptation of Mark Haddon's novel, has once again, as in her previous War Horse, shown us new things theatre can do and new sorts of stories it can tell. In The Curious Incident ..., the triumvirate of Haddon, Stephens and Elliott take us into the mind of a 15-year-old British boy who is on the autism spectrum. The "incident" in question is the murder of a neighbor's dog. A shocking incident, to be sure, but it is defused considerably by Elliott's placing the dead dog, with a pitchfork lodged in its side, on stage for the audience to see as they enter. And the dog's death is essentially just a MacGuffin.*
Though the boy, Christopher, is initially suspected of the crime, he's cleared and the story continues, providing insight into his mind as he proceeds to investigate the crime using his highly intelligent and analytical brain. We see how he approaches solving the puzzle, but also how he goes about daily life in a world he doesn't completely understand. His condition causes him to be extremely literalmetaphorical speech seems like lying to him. He can't read people's moods and he is frequently anxious, but often otherwise surprisingly unemotional. All stimuli are equally important to him, so vast amounts of information at once become overwhelming.
Elliott tells the story, set first in the mid-sized city of Swindon, England, with a minimum of props or set design. Outlines of the houses in Christopher's neighborhood are projected onto the upstage wall and walls along the wings (in video designed by Finn Ross). Ensemble members frequently play inanimate objects such as doors. The set pieces and costumes (both designed by Bunny Christie) are real enough to ground the action in contemporary England. The projections also give us impressionistic representations of what's going on inside Christopher's mind. Numbers flash all over the three projection walls to show his facility with mathstreet signs and "adverts" abound when Christopher takes a harrowing trip 80 miles away to London. The Tony Award-winning lighting design by Paule Constable and the sound design by Ian Dickinson for Autograph add to the creation of the special world inside Christopher's mind.
The cast of this touring production doesn't boast names familiar to most of us, but it's a stunning group of actors, led by Adam Langdon as Christopher. His manic energy and nervous tics make a convincing picture of this very differently abled teen. He's onstage the entire two hours and 15 minutes of stage time, if I recall correctly, and his energy and keen sense of being in the moment never falter. Acting, of course, demands listening and reacting to one's scene partners, but in a role like thiswhere Christopher's reactions to those around him are so instantaneous and severethere's absolutely no room for error, and none was noted in his performance.
The same goes for Langdon's castmates, particularly Gene Gillette as Christopher's rough but caring father and Felicity Jones Latta as his mother, who is seen mostly in flashbacks. Maria Elena Ramirez is also a standout as Christopher's supportive teacher, but the work of all the ensemble (Amelia White, Charlotte Maier, John Hemphill, Brian Robert Burns, Francesca Choy-Kee, Geoffrey Wade, Josephine Hall, Robyn Kerr, Tim McKiernan, J. Paul Nicholas, and Tim Wright) is outstanding.
Elliott's staging of this story is a brilliant way to help us understand the mind of someone who processes information in a totally different manner than most of us, but there's much more than that to be learned from The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. As is so often the case, seeing the world from a different perspective can lead us question things we had previously taken for granted. Why is our interpersonal communication so indirect? Why does the process of getting aroundby train or bus or whateverhave to be so confusing? Do we really need all these messages bombarding us? (Those of us who have visited London, even if we do live in Chicago and do not have autism, will agree it's a daunting and sometimes overwhelming place). Why does life have to be so difficult?
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is, very simply, a must for any serious theatergoer. And it might even convert some who don't think they would enjoy theatre.
* MacGuffin is a term coined by Alfred Hitchcock referring to a device that has no particular significance except its importance to the charactersit's the problem they must solve, the thing they must getin a story that is more about the chase or the struggle than the problem itself.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time will play the Oriental Theatre, 24 W. Randolph, Chicago, through December 24, 2016. For information or tickets, visit www.broadwayinchicago.com or call (800) 775-2000. For more information on the tour, visit curiousonbroadway.com/tour.php.