There is theater that entertains, theater that makes you think, theater that touches the heart and stirs the soul, and every now and then, there’s a work of theater that achieves all of that, and in a way no other art form can.
Such an occurrence is incredibly rare, but it’s happening right now at Farmers Alley in their production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time.”
Based on Mark Haddon’s best-selling 2003 novel, to see this production of Simon Stephens’ adaptation is a heightened experience of reading the excellent book. Part murder mystery, part coming-of-age tale, it’s a radically creative exploration of empathy that tells the story of Christopher Boone, a brilliant teenager who attends a school for those with special needs, and his sleuthing through the discovery that a neighbor dog he loved has been murdered.
His specialness or difference is never named, though he doesn’t like to touch or be touched or make eye contact, metaphors and matters of speech make no sense to him, he must learn how to read emotion on faces, he despises the colors yellow and brown, he decides what kind of mood to be in based on the number and type of cars he sees, and when he experiences intolerable sensory overload, he catalogues prime numbers and otherwise does geometry in his head to calm himself down.
It’s a marvelous tale that invites the reader into the experience of what it’s like to be Christopher, perhaps what it might be like to be on the autism spectrum; however, as a work of live theater, particularly in the hands of Director J. Scott Lapp and the extraordinary cast and crew at Farmers Alley, it literally places the audience in Christopher’s world so they must experience it from his perspective. And what an amazing world it is.
The world — one in which Christopher makes more sense than the confusing circumstances he must navigate — is created through tremendously imaginative staging. Designed by Justin Thomas, a raised false thrust stage like a catwalk surrounded on either side with benches made of cubbies (and other clever nooks and crannies) creates malleable space where actors play infinite roles and astonishing props (Savannah Draper) emerge. It transforms the space with the central narrative of the book Christopher is writing about exploring, the curious incident of the dead dog, and allows shifts in time to scenes from the past and fantasies and reveries. It even transforms the way Christopher experiences conversations and events, aided by Jason Frink’s lighting design and Justin Thomas’s projections, as well as sound by Alex Tobin and original compositions by Antonio L. Mitchell II.
We see the writing on the wall of his mother’s letters, get drawn into his imagined future as an astronaut as the theater becomes a planetarium, find ourselves terrifyingly caught on train tracks while retrieving Christopher’s beloved pet rat, Toby, and feel the terror and joy of a long past day at the beach. Through utter sensory immersion, Christopher’s adventures, his overwhelm, his delights, become ours.
This is also because it’s impossible not to become completely entranced by Troy Hussmann’s splendid, dynamic, wildly physically demanding, and endearing portrayal of Christopher. With rapid speech and intricate gestures, he transports us into Christopher’s phenomenal world and inspires a terrific array of emotional responses. A brilliant fight scene choreographed by Chelsea Nicole Lapp gives way to but one of many heart-wrenchingly tender moments with Jeremy Koch whose understated portrayal of Christopher’s tormented father is beautifully complex and fiercely loving.
All the other actors help build this world that revolves around Christopher with grace and aplomb, particularly Betsy King and Brian Panse, who seamlessly play multiple roles, as well as Tory Matsos as Christopher’s teacher, and Tina Gluschenko as his mother.
Farmers Alley’s production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time” makes good on the transformative power of theater. It is nothing short of a miraculous journey that so richly recreates one particularly misunderstood human experience with such glorious imagination and skill, we who see it are changed, perhaps even improved, for having seen it.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time
Farmers Alley Theatre