By Lisa Kennedy (Read the original.)
When the national tour of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” arrived in Denver two years ago, it came with plenty of bells and whistles. Loud bells and whistles — and no small measure of flashing lights. That was, in part, the point.
The production’s design was intended to be assaultive, to give audience members a sense of what it might be like to be — like the play’s young protagonist — highly neuro-sensitive to light, to sound, to touch, to the world. It was impressive and also perhaps somewhat misguided, this gesture.
The pyrotechnics too often swamped the ample poetry and more delicate sensibilities of Simon Stephens’ Tony-winning adaptation of Mark Haddon’s 2007 novel. To say nothing of the complicated assumption that play attendees would not themselves be among those with neuro-sensitivities.
The Boulder Ensemble Theatre Company is inviting audiences into 15-year-old Christopher Boone’s world anew as he tries to solve the demise of the dog of the title. Stephen Weitz directs with fine hindsight awareness that the national tour of the Tony-winning show may have muted the play’s most vital truths in its efforts to simulate and overstimulate.
BETC’s vividly acted production stirs empathy but also revives an appreciation for the play’s nuanced notions about brains, hearts and language – dramatic, poetic and literal.
Christopher Boone, we learn almost immediately, doesn’t — can’t — lie. His brain doesn’t allow for it. Like many other adults in his life, his neighbor Mrs. Shears (MacKenzie Beyer) forgets this when she and Christopher stand over her dead dog, Wendell. She’s convinced that the teen was the assailant. He’s an easy mark. A little awkward, Christopher can be jittery and overly chatty. He’s clearly bright (savant-grade smart, in fact) but behaviorally out of sync; he’s a keen observer but not a capable listener. He bristles at touch. When he and his father, Ed, physically connect, it’s with an ever-so-gentle touching of fingertips. It’s been just Christopher and Ed for a few years now. His mother died unexpectedly.
Alex Rosenthal delivers a superbly embodied but affectation-free performance as the boy who embarks on a Sherlock Holmes-like mystery. He’s going to find out who buried a garden fork into Wendell, although his father insists that he do no such thing.
Michael Morgan brings to his performance as Ed a frustration and fury that rattles the way parental anger can. Again and again, he boldly risks jettisoning sympathy for Ed.
There is love here, too, but it’s in depicting a father’s exhaustion and bouts of temper that Morgan proves his mettle.
The reasons for Ed’s admonishment seem initially clear. His son can be draining; he can easily land in trouble. But like much of the adult world that Christopher navigates, Ed’s reasons are not as they appear. Christopher’s investigation finds him taking a train from his home to London, a logistical and emotional odyssey that lays bare so many hard familial secrets. Karen LaMoureaux cycles through believable stages of maternal and marital feelings as Christopher’s mom.
Christopher’s first-person perspective is related via a journal he shares with a teacher, Siobhan. Anastasia Davidson does crisp work as the play’s occasional narrator. Siobhan is a believable stand-in for the kind, consistent presence a kid like Christopher needs, even if “need” is not an emotional state he fully grasps.
A finely attuned ensemble surrounds Rosenthal’s Christopher with adults who either falter or fail in their interactions with the teen. There are a couple of grown-ups who figure out ways to engage Christopher and not be thrown by his actions and responses. A London police officer (Warren Sherrill) almost gets it. As an older neighbor nimble enough for his quirks, Billie McBride charms.
Having dialed down the clamor of the production, Weitz lets the play’s intricate, self-referencing structure unfold with quiet humor. The ensemble appears at times as characters in a play adapted from Chris’ journal. They are Greek chorus; heck, they can even be chorus line as they engage in moving the set’s big triangle props or acting out something Christopher says.
Although Christopher declares he’s no fan of “metaphor,” there are plenty of potent ones here. Scenic designer Tina Anderson uses triangles building into a half dome that would do Buckminster Fuller proud. The structure resembles a cutaway of the futurist’s geodesic domes but also the familiar school-yard jungle gym based on his ideas. It evokes science and childhood — and the goings-on in Christopher’s noggin.
Some of the triangles have fabric that captures projections by Brian Freeland. Those can be hues of light, which hint at mood, but also images that speak more directly to Christopher’s perceptions. Some, like a light-filled train station, are straightforward. Others, like the images of solar systems, speak to the budding mathematician’s fondness for space but also bring to mind neural connections. At times, Jonathan Holt Howard’s sound design even evokes the kind of muted electronic soundtrack we might hear during a planetarium show.
Even in the few years since Haddon’s novel and the play’s Broadway run, the language around the autism spectrum and neurodiversity has shifted. Check out BETC’s program for some of the history of pushback — artistic and social — against labeling Christopher’s particular differences.
In the brief two years since I last saw it, parts of the national tour have been relegated to dim memories of the noisy design and its overenthusiastic reception as “immersive.” In pulling back from the play’s early pyrotechnics, Weitz and company make way for pain and wonder, for the failings and possibilities of connection, for language’s clarity and for the poetry that extends its reach beyond words. It feels indelible.
Note: BETC offers two “relaxed” performances of the play for audience members sensitive to certain physical aspects of the production, on May 4 at 2 p.m. and May 8 at 7:30 p.m.
3.5 stars. “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” Written by Simon Stephens. Based on a novel by Mark Haddon. Directed by Stephen Weitz. Featuring Alex Rosenthal, Anastasia Davidson, Michael Morgan, Karen LaMoureaux, Billie McBride, MacKenzie Beyer, Sam Gilstrap, Sean Michael Cummings, Lois Shih, Warren Sherrill. At the Dairy Arts Center through May 19. 2590 Walnut St., Boulder. Betc.org or 303-444-7328