Review: ‘Curious Incident’ is a unique, talented exploration of an extraordinary mind

Go inside a teenage boy’s brain with the Michigan premiere of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” at Actors’ Theatre Grand Rapids. With their unique use of set pieces and props, sound and talented acting, this play is not one you want to miss this month.

The show is set on a stage that’s dark and the floor is slanted upwards. Various boxes are moved around to represent different aspects in each setting — for example, a bed in a bedroom or a counter at a train station ticket office. Because the floor is slanted, we — the audience — can see the different light projections casted on the stage floor.

A dog with a garden fork stabbed in its back is the first projection we see, opening the show with a canine murder. Next to the dog is 15-year-old Christopher (Jason J. Flannery), lying on the ground, hands covering his ears, groaning and rocking back and forth. The neighbor, and owner of the dog, is questioning him about who killed the dog, and if it was him.

As Christopher is stuck in his anxiety, a narrator appears at the front of the stage. She speaks as if she’s Christopher talking. It’s a play within a play, as Christopher’s paraprofessional at school, Siobhan (Erin Cullum), reads what Christopher wrote about his experience after finding his neighbor’s dog dead.

After the dog is found dead, Christopher is on a detective mission to find out who killed the dog. He documents his experiences, and at a couple points in the show Siobhan says he should make it into a play at school. As the show goes on, you realize that Siobhan is not a narrator of Christopher’s thoughts, but reading his play to the audience.

It’s not explicitly mentioned, but Christopher has some type of high-functioning autism. It’s mentioned in the original book the play is based on, and the director, Jean Reed Bahle, hints at it in her note in the show’s program. It’s clear that Christopher does struggle with social situations and reading body language. He’s very afraid of confined spaces, crowds of people and people touching him. It’s also hinted in the show that Christopher goes to a school for children with mental disabilities.

The play — written by Simon Stephens — is a nice twist on the plot from the actual book, by author Mark Haddon. It follows the plot but uses the actors to show what’s going on in Christopher’s head. Even the smallest of moments are magnified to show just how much it takes for Christopher to manage his emotions in social situations. His thoughts and anxiety are represented by a group of people dressed in dark clothing to blend into the set. As tension builds, they are there to, for example, walk in a circle really fast to represent Christopher’s thoughts running through his mind. Words are repeated for emphasis and sometimes whispered behind Christopher, like a voice in his head.

A pivotal moment in this play, one that really highlighted the talent of the actors, was when Christopher broke into his father’s room and finds a handful of letters that reveal a secret that’s been kept from him for quite some time. As he reads the letters — written by his mother — you can clearly see that he is going to reach a breaking point.

The “voices” in his head are stomping in unison, faster and faster as he’s reading the letters and messing with a toy train. The letters are read aloud by his mother, Judy (CJ Namenye Wood) and Siobhan. The alternating of the voices adds to the intensity. The noises build and build as Christopher begins to break and then there’s a sudden silence when he slams his train and the letters all over the floor.

Because of this different style of acting, the show can be a little confusing at times, but I think it’s better that way, as it captures the struggles of the character’s life and mind. There’s no need to even mention it in the show, the acting is clearly well done and representative.

After the second act, the play does slow a little. It’s not as quick as the first act and not as exciting, but stick around, because you’ll want to see the ending.

The show is well worth seeing, as the acting is truly unlike many shows I’ve seen. It captures the unique life experience of Christopher, including the minute things that might not seem like anything to us, but are a really big deal to him. I would recommend this show for anyone looking for some really talented community theater and a show that won’t disappoint.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
Actors Theatre
Sept. 13-23