SCENES AND MOTIONS: ‘The Dog in the Night-Time’
‘A Curious Incident,’ indeed
“And because there is something they can’t see people think it has to be special, because people always think there is something special about what they can’t see, like the dark side of the moon, or the other side of a black hole, or in the dark when they wake up at night and they’re scared.”
Art in any form can help us to see. And to feel. Art, at its best, helps us think and perhaps even to understand.
Take for instance The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Mark Haddon’s best-selling “mystery novel” (2003) (and subsequent theatrical adaptation) is told from the point of view of Christopher, a special teenager who’s better at solving equations than navigating a world that’s out of sync with how his mind works. After being wrongly accused of murdering his neighbor’s dog, he resolves to find the real culprit. When his investigation uncovers painful truths about his family, he dares to strike out on his own.
In his blog, author Mark Haddon wrote "Curious Incident is not a book about Asperger's or any specific disorder. If anything, it's a novel about difference, about being an outsider, about seeing the world in a surprising and revealing way.” As a book and as a play, Christopher’s coming-of-age story has become a hero’s quest fascinating readers and audiences all over the world.
Speaking to critic Maddy Costa in The Guardian, playwright Simon Stephens agreed that the irony is that “Christopher sees stories as lies, and theatre as dishonest. But it's through the lie that you find the greater truth. That's why you need to expose the mechanics of it.” This revealing irony is a big part of what got two metro area artistic directors, Lisa Adler (Horizon Theatre) and Justin Anderson (Aurora Theatre), excited about mounting the Atlanta premiere of one of the most popular dramatic scripts of the past decade.
“Christopher faces tremendous challenges because of his otherness,” says Anderson. “He’s desperately trying to find his place in the world. He overcomes so many obstacles that, by the end of the play, he and the audience come to understand that (his) otherness is perfect. Ultimately, our young hero is equal to everyone else and deserves respect as a valuable member of his family and his community.”
Anderson adds, “I’m fascinated by how bodies move in physical spaces, and so I’m thrilled to be able to use our combined tools and talents to make visible the thought process of these characters and to reveal the inner mystery of this young man’s mind. In many ways, ‘Curious Incident…’ is the most ambitious creative project I’ve ever been involved with.”
Might Atlanta audiences have unusually high expectations for this premiere? Perhaps.
Consider that, over the past seven years, the international bestseller has been adapted to the stage by Simon Stephens and premiered at the Royal National Theatre in London where it won seven Olivier Awards. To dramatize the intricate workings of Christopher’s brilliant imagination, the British creative team developed a state-of-the-art computerized LED lighting system, transforming a mostly bare set into a hypnotic grid of lights at key points in the story. At any moment, the giant white box of the stage became a swirling kaleidoscope of math equations, a speeding passenger train, a maze of London streets, or a star-filled expanse of interstellar space.
In 2015, the Royal Theatre production opened on Broadway to rave reviews and earned five Tony Awards, including ‘Best Play.’ Since then, touring productions and foreign language translations have wowed audiences in over a dozen countries across Europe, Asia, Africa, and the Middle East. And now, two small local theaters are co-producing and co-directing a new production with a local cast that will rely less on dazzling LED lighting effects, and more on ingenious original choreography. It will run at Horizon in L5P Sept. 20–Oct. 27 and at Aurora in Lawrenceville, Jan 9.–Feb 9., 2020.
As you might expect, theatre co-founder Lisa Adler is thrilled to open Horizon’s 36th season with “Curious Incident…” by adapting it to Horizon’s intimate stage in the Little Five Points Community Center. “Simon Stephens’ play is a great example of movement theatre at its best,” says Adler. “Our ensemble of eight actors will be telling a lot of this story with their bodies. Depending on the needs of a given scene, they’ll stand or stretch to become a closet, a piece of furniture, or the cabin of an imaginary spaceship.” The veteran director explains that “even though Christopher is a teenage character who can’t stand being touched, there are times when we’ll show him moving in space by having ‘invisible’ actors lifting him up walls and through the air.”
“Christopher is fascinated with math problems, puzzles, and seeing clues hidden in plain sight,” says Adler. “So, we’re basing our set design and choreography on all these elements as well as on Tetris, P.T., and other video games. We’re using projections, panels, portals, sound effects — lots of clever stage tricks to solve the stage puzzles this unique script presents.” Adler is quick to add, “Creatively, we’re having as much fun as with any play we’ve ever done, and we’re working to involve the audience in the puzzle-solving fun.”
To bring forth the best possible performances from their ensemble, Adler and Anderson invited Chicago-based “movement director” Roger Ellis to join their “trinity of perspectives.” The three directors are collaborating in rehearsals for four weeks leading up to opening night.
Anderson describes the play and the trio’s directorial arrangement as a “beautiful marriage of realism, surrealism, and dreamlike moments.” “We’re definitely learning from each other,” he adds. “The conversations and creative debates make for a super creative fusion. It feels like the very best ideas are bubbling to the top.”
I write this as someone who marveled with glee at the ingenuity of the Broadway production I witnessed four Septembers ago, and someone who was deeply moved by Christopher’s personal journey. And I’ll add that as a man with more than a little bit of an OCD personality, I certainly have my own mental challenges with obsessing over patterns and yearning to find order in a miraculous but often chaotic universe.
Personally, I can’t wait to see The Curious Incident of The Dog in The Night-Time again, both at Horizon this month and at Aurora in January. I’ve got to admit I’m curious (pun intended) to see how well they solve the puzzles of producing this very special play.