The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Playing at the Citadel Theatre, Edmonton, Alberta, Canada
September 17, 2016 to October 9, 2016
Review by GRAHAM HICKS, Hicksbiz.com
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, at the Citadel Theatre through October 9, 2016, is one of the most interesting, multi-layered and thoughtful plays to have come along in a long, long time.
Ostensibly, it’s about a high-functioning autistic young teenager, Christopher, trying to find out who killed his neighbour’s dog.
Boil down the plot and the swirling collage of scenes and characters: In a compelling sub-text, author Mark Haddon (and, one presumes, stage adapter Simon Stephens) shakes his head at the inability of modern adults to sustain deep, loving life-long relationships, especially in the context of children and their needs.
Curious Incident is a subtle meditation upon (and a magnificent creative illustration of) the emotional effects of parental break-up on children; those times of relationship crisis when parents make emotional decisions with the maturity of angst-ridden teenagers.
In what amounts to reverse logic, the head-shaking is done through the character of the adolescent son, Christopher. Due to a surfeit of intelligence and a mental disorder, Christopher perceives life as a series of logical steps in which irrationality and emotions create nothing but chaos.
The character Christopher does not consciously do the head-shaking himself. Christopher is a vehicle through which author Haddon and playwright Stephens gently wring their hands over the frailty of modern human relationships.
Without spoiling the show by revealing too much detail, Curious Incident opens with Christopher finding his neighbour’s dead dog, killed by a pitchfork plunged into its side.
Then details of his life are revealed. He lives with his father. His mother, he has been told, is dead. The neighbour’s husband is no longer around.
Christopher is unaware of all circumstances regarding his parents and the neighbouring couple. But, as he attempts to solve the mystery of who killed the dog, more and more of what had carefully concealed comes to light, circumstances that seem absurd or just plain silly to Christopher but from the author’s point of view are about spousal love gone dreadfully wrong.
Curious Incident is such a fine, fine show because these swirling emotional/life circumstances are juxtaposed against the rigid logic order Christopher must have if he is not to be overwhelmed by sensory overload and his inability to understand emotional trauma.
That juxtaposition works its way into every nook and cranny of this extraordinary play – and is exploited beautifully in this production by director Heidi Malazdrewich, Edmund Stapleton as Christopher, David Keeley as his father and Patricia Zentilla as his mother. No, we’re not going to reveal how mother goes from being believed to be dead, to being very much alive.
Through this play, the audience gains much insight into the autistic mind - at least Christopher’s version. In a tour de force of non-verbal illustration, the set, the lighting, the sound and the projections are an external reflection of what is happening in Christopher’s mind.
When Christopher is calm, reflections of his thoughts – literal and by analogy – are projected in imaginative, gentle ways. When he is under sensory bombardment, as in his solo rail/tube trip to London, the show’s use of projected images reveal a perilously quick descent from logic to temporary insanity. It is a visual impression of frightening beauty.
Lest Curious Incident be seen from this review as a grim, difficult show, it is anything but. Author Haddon and playwright Stephens have fashioned a play that despite the emotional turmoil is ultimately about hope, acceptance and the joy of simply being human, contradictory though we all may be. Christopher’s parents are ultimately portrayed as flawed but loving, having made very bad decisions but ultimately meaning well.
Curious Incident is full of gentle humour. We laugh with Christopher, not at him, about his quirkiness and his stories of what happens at his special school. We leave the theatre with a better understanding of autism – and perhaps a deeper, more sympathetic understanding of peculiar people in general.
Kudos to all involved – especially to Edmund Stapleton, around whom, as Christopher, this show entirely revolves. It’s as demanding a role as can be found, and Stapleton was fully up to the challenge of portraying a complex autistic adolescence with child-like wisdom beyond his years.
(Edmonton-raised actor Ben Wheelwright played the role three-times a week for the past year on Broadway, and is now starring in the Broadway touring show)
And kudos to the Citadel Theatre and co-producer the Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre, for obtaining the rights to The Curious Incident, less than two years after its opening on Broadway, and less than a year after its winning the 2015 Tony Award for as Broadway’s Best Play of the Year.
Stage technology, intricate writing, consummate acting and basic human hope are so smoothly intertwined in this show that different insights must keep surfacing in one's mind, days after attending Curious Incident. Truly, it is one of the most special evenings of live theatre you are ever likely to see.