A Dazzling, Pulse-Pounding Performance!
Ever had one of those days in a big city when you feel totally defenseless? Everything you see or do is suddenly sensory overload? Sure you have. It happens when you haven’t slept, or you drank too much the night before, or you’ve been brooding over bad news.
All your senses, it seems, have been heightened to a painful acuity; your nerve endings are standing on guard. And every one of the ambient sights and sounds of urban life registers as a personal assault. You feel like a walking target, and that subway ride that awaits you looms like a descent into a warzone.
Such a state of being is conjured with dazzling effectiveness in “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” which opened February 25th at Camino Real Playhouse (currently celebrating their 32nd season) in San Juan Capistrano and running for one more weekend, closing on March 13th. Adapted for the stage by Simon Stephens from Mark Haddon’s best-selling 2003 novel, Mr. Stephens’ 2015 Best Play Tony Winner about an autistic boy’s coming-of-age was one of the most fully immersive works ever to wallop Broadway.
So be prepared to have all your emotional buttons pushed, including a few you may not know about. As Artistic Director, Leslie Eisner, brings this smash-hit production to thrilling life on stage with a two-act play that retunes the way you see and hear everything you normally take for granted. But proceed with caution: “Curious Incident...” can be shamelessly manipulative. Plus, more than any mainstream theater production to date, it forces you to adopt, wholesale, the point of view of someone with whom you may initially feel you have little in common.
Christopher Boone, a teenager with a rather extraordinary talent for academic studies (especially math), lives in Swindon with his father and a pet rat, Toby. He is the first kid to do a Math A Level in his school and he abhors the colors yellow and brown. He intends to become an astronaut, but is not very fond of the idea of meeting strange people. Christopher sees everything, and remembers even more, but he cannot prioritize things. Simply walking down the street can be a herculean challenge. When he falls under suspicion for killing his neighbor’s dog (found speared by a sharp garden fork), it takes him on a journey that upturns his whole world.
Christopher, who suffers from a disorder that would appear to be Asperger Syndrome, finds it hard enough to process the events of an afternoon at home in the town of Swindon. He’d be better off in outer space, which would at least be quiet, rather than in London. That could be scary, yes, but exhilarating too. For him, simple, daily existence is turned into a perilous trek into the unknown — attempting to avoid the shards of sensory overload. Christopher sees it all with an acuity that hurts, whenever anything disrupts his tidy interior universe. That’s when his whole world heaves and mutates and he becomes a tight ball of nerves. You may even find your own muscles tightening in sympathy as well.
Played by 19-year old Quinn Rizco (“The Laramie Project”), who grounds the spectacle in a brutally honest performance with the kind of smashing debut premiere young actors classically dream about, Christopher is in some ways a parent’s nightmare. He hates being touched, is bewildered by the common clichés of small talk and is sent into cataclysmic tantrums by any violation of his rigidly ritualized world. But he has a distinct advantage over most of us, and he knows it. “I see everything,” he says, while looking out the window during the first train ride of his life. “Most other people are lazy. “They never look at everything,” he continues. “They do what is called glancing, which is the same word for bumping off something and carrying on in almost the same direction.”
Mr. Stephens’ play has been written in the first person, and translating a subjective point of view into external reality is always tricky. As we follow Christopher’s attempts to solve the case himself — Wellington’s murderer — the playwright employs an assortment of narrative devices to keep us inside his mind.
Most prominent among these is the use of a special-education teacher, Siobhan (Sarah-Jane Finch; “Blithe Spirit”), as an audience intermediary, bringing a welcomed sharpness to the part, and reading to us from Christopher’s diarylike account, which he has evidently written at her request. The people around him, embodied by a winning ensemble of everyday chameleons, seem to register as products of his imagination, performing as his personal re-conception of their real-life prototypes. Those people include the other two main characters, his father Ed Boone (Darrell Hill; “Sherlock Holmes: Here There Be Dragons”), and his mother Judy (Michele Lee Atkins; “Carousel”).
The other six incredibly-gifted company ensemble members include: BJ Grip (“A Streetcar Named Desire”) as a policeman, etc.; Lanette Gutman (“The Addams Family”) as Mrs. Alexander, etc.; Jon Hackathorn (“Legally Blonde”), who could easily double for a young Woody Harrelson, playing Roger Shears, the Duty Sergeant, etc.; veteran actor Rich Hutchinson (“A Christmas Story”) as Reverend Peters, a policeman, etc.; Carissa Mace (“The Long Weekend”) as Mrs. Shears, Mrs. Gascoyne, etc.; and Savannah Moffat (“Titus Andronicus”) as the Punk Girl, etc. Other than Mr. Rizco’s faithful congruity in character, all of the ensemble assumed supporting and multiple bit-part roles, leaving the audience wonderstruck with their extraordinary performances overall.
While searching for the dog’s killer, Christopher discovers frightening news and events perpetrated by his father concerning his mother’s supposed death, finds years of undelivered mail to him in a shirt box, and experiences abuse at his hand. Panic-stricken, he becomes distraught and fears for his own life. For the first time, he attempts to travel alone to London, unannounced, to live with his mother. With only an envelope address to go by, the trip threatens to pulverize him. And those lights, noises, street signs, moving staircases, road maps, random words that appear out of nowhere — they just keep coming at you, to the point that you expect your mind to just give up and shut down.
The great achievement of “Curious Incident” lies in how it turns the stage into the ordering mechanism of Christopher’s mind. Director Eisner creates a stylized performance that segues into physical theatre or, you may even call it a dance. Actors become props — doors, drawers, or even electrical impulses for an EKG — in ways that irresistibly recalled theatre in shows that dominated the 1990s. This stylization creates a connection to the emotional theme in the story. There is a host of situations going on simultaneously.
Ed and Judy both struggle with the challenges of dealing with Christopher, but the inarticulate father struggles with his own deeply disturbing problems too; the mother runs off with her dodgy lover, unable to cope with her son. And, presumably the characters that surround Christopher are seen through his subjectivity, and order-seeking eyes.
Asperger Syndrome or autism isn’t mentioned in the play itself: Christopher simply says he has “some behavioral difficulties.” But his character adheres to some common ideas about neuro-typical people that are espoused in movies such as Rain Man: he has unusual mental abilities. He can instantly count a herd of cows outside a train window, and has a precocious mathematical ability. And he’s unsettlingly devoid of empathy for other people.
This astounding achievement in storytelling, currently offered at Camino Real Playhouse, is ingeniously conceived and artfully implemented. The voices and acting ability of the supporting cast is, every one, vivid and intriguing, representing authentically styled British accents and mannerisms, and the images interspersing the text have been translated by Director Eisner (who also designed the set that combines projections, drawings and boxes that can be repurposed as different objects), Roger Woodcock’s lighting, sound, and technical direction (providing the audience with a remarkable visual spectacle), strong stage management by Stacy Cawthon, and Joanna Tsang Segelson’s amazing choreography of moving people. Their designs seem to be at their most powerful when conveying the panic of information overload.
CAMINO REAL PLAYHOUSE PRESENTS - THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME; Based on the novel by Mark Haddon; Adapted by Simon Stephens; Directed by Leslie Eisner; Choreographed by Joanna Tsang Segelson; Technically Directed by Roger Woodcock; Lighting & Sound Design by Roger Woodcock; Scenic Design by Leslie Eisner; Stage Managed by Stacy Cawthon.
WITH: QUINN RIZCO as Christopher Boone; SARAH-JANE FINCH as Siobhan; DARRELL HILL as Ed Boone; MICHELE LEE ATKINS as Judy Boone; CARISSA MACE as Voice One/Mrs. Shears/Others; JON HACKATHORN as Voice Two/Roger Shears/Others; BJ GRIP as Voice Three/Policeman/Others; RICH HUTCHINSON as Voice Four/Rev. Peters/Others; SAVANNAH MOFFAT as Voice Five/No. 40/Others; LANETTE GUTMAN as Voice Six/Mrs. Alexander/Others.
Now Playing on Stage II, Feb 25-Mar 13. Tickets may be purchased online at https://caminorealplayhouse.org/
Arts & Entertainment Reviewer
The Show Report