Theater Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time Lights Up the Mathematics of the Mind | Arts

Theater Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time Lights Up the Mathematics of the Mind


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  • photo courtesy of DPAC
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Through Feb. 26
Durham Performing Arts Center, Durham

Artists know that embracing restrictions can spark creativity. A visual artist who limits herself to variations on a certain hue or a composer who drastically narrows his choices in instrumentation accepts those constraints in order to explore the possibilities within them. British author Mark Haddon accepted some profound constraints when he wrote his 2003 novel, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, before Simon Stephens's stage adaptation went to London's West End, Broadway, and the touring National Theatre production currently running at DPAC.

Though the play never provides a specific diagnosis, the narrator and central character—a teenage boy named Christopher—clearly has an autism spectrum disorder that limits his ability to perceive and express emotions and to process sensory stimuli from his surroundings. Since Christopher has great difficulty understanding and utilizing figurative speech and metaphors, his capacity to communicate is also impaired.

The difficulties of this setup for a fiction writer should be obvious. Where novelists generally employ a vivid literary palette to convey a broad range of sense imagery and feelings, Haddon was limited to the words, grammar, and syntax appropriate to a narrator with limited language capabilities in order to articulate the narrowed bandwidth of emotions and experiences available to his character. Challenges like that don’t often yield best-sellers, nor do they usually propel box-office juggernauts.

Haddon and Stephens have an out, though. They dive into the one area where Christopher has the greatest mobility: the worlds of science and mathematics. He takes comfort in prime numbers when he’s upset or overstimulated; a maze of quadratic equations yields unalloyed joy when he solves it. It becomes clear that the combinations of deductive and inductive reasoning Christopher uses to confront the two major mysteries in this text are the foundations of scientific inquiry.

But the theatrical version has challenges all its own. Where a novel lets us float to some degree in a character’s consciousness, the stage forces us to deal with physicality, and the effect is sometimes jarring. We must recalibrate when, under Marianne Elliott’s direction, Adam Langdon’s exaggerated, stilted delivery as Christopher simultaneously suggests elocutionary overacting as well as a speech disorder. On the other hand, Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett’s choreography bring a Pilobolus-like sensibility to Christopher’s sometimes literal flights of fancy, childhood memories of his missing mother, and his negotiations through the less felicitous mazes of the London Underground.

Much has been written of this production’s flashy, but ultimately lonely, technical design. Bunny Christie’s literal, largely empty black box of mathematical grids represents the mind of the central character. Lighting designer Paule Constable’s matrices of multi-colored LEDs and border cubes reinforce the cool detachment of this vision of mental space. When combined with Finn Ross’s video projections and Ian Dickinson’s sounds, these elements depict Christopher's breakdowns in moments of sensory overload, and they more than flirt with the element of spectacle.

Still, I was resistant to the production design. Occasionally, the visual and sonic embellishments seem a diversion, an attempt to infuse drama into moments of relative inaction that would otherwise lack much impact. And I'm not always convinced they're substantial enough to truly take us into the mind of another person. When the images and audio fade, only an empty grid remains. It's hard to imagine a representation of an individual's mental landscape that's more stark or more reductive.

As Christopher’s teacher, Siobhan, Maria Elena Ramirez brings much-needed warmth to these chilly proceedings. Gene Gillette evinces a narrow emotional range as Christopher’s father, Ed, and Felicity Jones Latta explores the compassion and the limited coping skills of Christopher’s mom, Judy. Poignantly and appropriately, the novel and this production keep these figures at a certain distance as a young man with great gifts and disadvantages learns to make his way through a confusing, not always trustworthy world. Despite the limitations of the people in his life, his surroundings, and this stage representation, we still see a character take an impressive, necessary step toward autonomy.


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