Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul
The play is based on British writer Mark Haddon's 2003 prize-winning novel of the same name, in which fifteen-year-old Christopher Boone gives a first-person narration of his campaign to solve the mystery of a neighbor's dog found dead, and the ensuing difficulties he encounters. Though his diagnosis is never named in either the book or the play, Christopher appears to be on the very high-functioning end of the autism spectrum, with extraordinary abilities to observe and remember minute details, and to solve ridiculously complex math problems. He attends a special school, and in Stephens' adaptation of Haddon's book for the stage, the narration is taken on by his wonderfully empathetic teacher, Siobhan.
Siobhan encourages Christopher to write a book about his pursuit of the mystery as a way of channeling the energy and emotions stirred up by his experience. At intervals throughout the play, Siobhan reads segments of Christopher's chronicle, leading in to the enactment of successive scenes. The device works very well. Audience members can put themselves in Siobhan's place, sharing in her concerned fondness for the vulnerable youth, bemusement at his ultra-literal way of processing the world, and amazement at his determination and resiliency. His exploits include overcoming social anxiety to speak with neighbors, learning heartbreaking secrets about his family, and venturing forth on a journey that would be daunting for any fifteen-year-old, let alone one who has other challenges.
Christopher's condition causes him to experience sound and light inputs with searing intensity. The play incorporates an abundance of light and sound so that the audience experiences the story as Christopher does. In its first incarnation, in 2012 at the Royal National Theatre in London, an ingenious and massive array of staging lighting, sound recordings and projected video images brought Christopher's vision to life. Except for the National's in-the-round setting, this effective approach was carried over to the acclaimed Broadway production in 2014 and the subsequent national tour that played at the Orpheum in Minneapolis in December, 2016. As a small venue with drastically fewer resources, Yellow Tree faced an ambitious challenge to create the necessary representation of Christopher's sensory overload. Thanks to the sterling work of lighting designer Courtney Schmitz, sound designer Peter Morrow, and especially projection designer Emmet Kowler, Yellow Tree succeeds handily, with the added bonus of doing so in an intimate venue that really brings us close to the barrage of sounds and sights that pummel Christopher.
Working with these elements, and with Arina Slobodianik's stark but extremely effective set, director Ellen Fenster keeps the play flowing, shifting from one corner of Christopher's mind to another, and bringing conviction to moments that rely on barely any set piece or sound and light effects at all. She makes excellent use of her ensemble of actors who play multiple roles, as well as becoming the faceless, nameless masses on crowded city sidewalks and railroad cars.
A young actor named Zach Schnitzer plays Christopher Boone, and he is phenomenal. Schnitzer is a high school senior who has been acting since sixth grade and let it be known that he wants to pursue acting in theater as a career. If there were no other reason to see this production, it would be worth it to be able to say you saw this talented actor when he was just a teenager, because I am certain his future on stage will be bright. Schnitzer captures the turmoil that plagues Christopher when facts don't line up, contrasted to his ironclad certainty about what he knows to be a fact. He is not immune to being emotionally wounded, but lacks a vocabulary or process for dealing with these upheavals. Schnitzer poignantly conveys this dilemma.
The other three lead roles are played beautifully as well. Stacia Rice, seen far to infrequently on stage these days, is heartbreaking as Judy, Christopher's mother. We meet her in a flashback to a day at the beach, with Rice lustily projecting the desire to be free of constraints, including the constraints posed by parenting a child with Christopher's special needs, yet still conveying her love for him. As Christopher's father Ed, Corey Mills is a good-hearted but average workingman who has summoned the discipline and love needed when he becomes Christopher's sole caregiver, making a terrific go of it even when his best efforts fall short. Laura Esping plays the teacher Siobhan, emanating the steadfast patience, warmth and wisdom that make her classroom a safe haven for Christopher. One would wish such a kind teacher with such sure instincts for every child.
Ultimately, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time paints a heartfelt rendering of any child (though fifteen, and a genius at logic and math, Christopher is still a child in many ways) who must navigate the rocky waters of life stirred up by the failings of adults. Haddon, author of the book, successfully wrote literature for children for sixteen years before he scribed The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, his first book intended for adults. He clearly understands how children process their experiences, and that understanding is faithfully transferred to the play by playwright Stephens.
If you have not had the opportunity to meet Christopher Boone and go on his amazing journey to solve the riddle of the curious incident of the dog in the night-time, I cannot urge you strongly enough to make it to Yellow Tree in the next few weeks. If you have had the pleasure, either by way of the book or past productions of the play (aside from the national tour's visit, Mixed Blood Theatre gave it a strong mounting two seasons ago), rest assured that Yellow Tree Theatre has given this beautiful work the loving care it deserves, well worth revisiting.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time runs through October 13, 2019, at at Yellow Tree Theatre, 320 5th Ave SE, Osseo MN. Tickets: $26.00 - $30.00; $10.00. Rush tickets starting 30 minutes before each performance, pending availability; $3.00 per ticket discount for seniors (65+) and students with valid ID. Arts for All Program offers $5.00 tickets for patrons with financial barriers - call for information. For information and tickets call 763-493-8733 or visit YellowTreeTheatre.com.
Playwright: Simon Stephens, based on the novel by Mark Haddon; Director: Ellen Fenster; Set Design: Arina Slobodianik; Costume Design: Ash M. Kaun; Lighting Design: Courtney Schmitz; Sound Design: Peter Morrow; Projection Design: Emmet Kowler; Assistant Scenic Design and Prop Master: Josie Everett; Assistant Sound Design: Ezekiel LaFosteCasse; Dialect Coach: Foster Johns; Technical Director: Matthew A. Gilbertson; Stage Manager: Brianna Regan; Assistant Stage Manager: Mathilda Elrod.
Cast: Laura Esping (Siobhan), Melinda Kordich (Mrs. Shears/Ensemble), Matthew Lolar (Ensemble), Corey Mills (Ed), Stacia Rice (Judy), Zach Schnitzer (Christopher), Peter Simmons (Ensemble), Alexcia Thompson (Ensemble), Dylan Ward (Ensemble).