By Beki Pineda
THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME. Written by Simon Stephens (based on the novel by Mark Haddon); directed by Marianne Elliott. Produced by the National Theatre (London) and presented by Denver Center for the Performing Arts Broadway (Speer and Arapahoe, Denver) through June 18. Tickets available at 303-893-4100 or www.denvercenter.org.
The point of entry into a review is one of the hardest things. Do you start with the script that moves you and tells a startling story? Or do you start with the amazing actors who live the story in front of your eyes? Since the first thing you see when you enter the theater is often the set, do you let that first impression start your thoughts? Or were there one or two mind-blowing moments that you know you will never forget? What if all those things rattle around in your brain until you want to start with all of them?
Such is the case with CURIOUS DOG. It is such a visual feast and such a beautifully written and acted script that it’s hard to describe the impact it has on its mesmerized audiences. First, though: the set. A literal black box when first viewed, it comes alive as the action commences with projections and elaborate audiovisual effects. Maps, mathematical formulas, emotions portrayed through light and sound—all enhance the overall effect of Christopher’s inner life. At times, it seems he lives inside a pinball machine with random disturbances and unsettling truths bouncing off the walls toward him unexpectedly. The techno quality of the set allows for some startling and memorable scenic effects. One—reminiscent of Bert’s dance around the proscenium in MARY POPPINS—is created as two actors lift Christopher over their heads to allow him to walk the walls while an aerial map of London’s maze-like streets is projected beneath his feet. It visually imparts his wonder at his surroundings and his fearfulness of the unknown in one startling image. Also, upon arriving at the train station, his pet rat escapes and jumps to the tracks below. Christopher follows and narrowly misses being run over by a train that is created with lights and sound. Mind-blowing! As one viewer commented, it’s like Cirque du Soleil with brains. All of this wonder was created by scenic designer Bunny Christie, lighting designer Paule Constable, video designer Finn Ross, sound designer Ian Dickinson, and Adrian Sutton’s music.
Who is this Christopher I keep talking about? Christopher (played opening night by Adam Langdon) is a 15-year-old boy who lives with his father in Swindon, 81 miles west of London. He has been told that his mother passed away from heart problems two years earlier. Christopher is a highly functioning child who lives within many of the structured rituals of the autistic mentality. He is a mathematical genius with dreams of becoming an astronaut, yet he can’t stand a human touch and is unable to understand nuance in dialogue. He argues effectively against the use of metaphors in speech as being useless. He learns vocal filters only by being told not to do or say something. When asked a question, he may give a one-word answer or tell the questioner much much more than he wanted to know. Oddly enough, some of the humor of the production is drawn from Christopher’s inability to understand what the adults around him are doing and saying, while some of it is derived from his highly intelligent understanding of his world and the unreasonableness of adults.
Christopher lives with his father (Gene Gillette) and has an understanding and empathic teacher, Siobhan (Maria Elena Ramirez), who encourages him to express himself by writing about the things he is learning and discovering. It is his next-door neighbor, Mrs. Shears (Kathy McCafferty), whose dog is discovered impaled on a garden fork, and another neighbor, Mrs. Alexander (Amelia White), who provides valuable information about Christopher’s family that has been kept from him. Felicity Jones Latta appears as his mother, Judy—who is not deceased but has had to choose her own well-being over caring for her child who will never love her as much as she loves him. The remaining nine actors are very effective cogs in this elaborate audiovisual machine.
Without the complications of Christopher’s personality, the story is fairly simple. The neighbor’s dog is discovered dead and because Christopher is accused of doing the deed, he becomes determined to discover who actually did the dog in. He starts detecting and learns more than he intended to by discovering letters that his supposedly dead mother had sent him from London. Angry at his father for lying to him, he determines to find her, travels to London on his own, reconnects with her, brings her back to Swindon with him and reconciles with his father. Simple, right?
But play that story against the manic otherness of Christopher’s world and walk in his alien shoes for the two hours of the production, and you have a whole new complicated tale to tell. He has created highly stylized daily rituals to maneuver through his world using math and routine. To break out of those routines to, for instance, knock on his neighbors’ doors to try to find out who killed the dog is an incredible act of bravery on his part. To undertake an ill-advised trip to London on his own with only his father’s stolen bank card and his pet rat as company creates an uneasiness even within the audience. The sensory impact of London on a child of this complexity almost melts him down while only his determination carries him through. As in so many things, we are braver than we think we are.
Adam Langdon’s Christopher is a tense, tightly wound phenomenon. He never relaxes, he never allows his body to betray his personal reality as he lives inside Christopher’s, and he is fearless in his dedication to the boy. He brings almost unintentional humor to the character and a dogged (pun intended) determination to see it through. Gene Gillette as his working-class father seems taut at first, but as you begin to realize what he is living through and coping with, you understand his own withdrawn characteristics and anger-management problems. He’s the kind of guy who wanted a son he could throw a football with on a Sunday afternoon while his wife cooked dinner. Instead he got a genius who dominates the conversation and the living conditions, and a wife who couldn’t take it. He is submissive and angry at the same time. Felicity Jones Latta gives Judy a realistic demeanor and powerful love for her son, while his teacher Maria Elena Ramirez offers unconditional understanding and compassion.
I can’t help but comment on Gene Gillette’s triumphant return to Colorado. Born in Evergreen and a veteran of the Colorado Shakespeare Festival, Curious Theatre Company, and the Arvada Center, for these 20 days of the Denver run, he is home. Go say hello with your applause.
WOW factor: 10