Directed by Heidi Malazdrewich
Presented by MTC
Royal Manitoba Theatre Centre’s (MTC) production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time is a perfect example of a show trying (and mostly succeeding) to have its cake and eat it too.
The original novel was widely acclaimed, as were the play’s London and New York runs, and this type of popular theatre rarely aims for experimentation. Likewise, the most challenging theatre can sometimes feel gratuitous in its experimentation, forgetting altogether to please its audience.
Curious Incident manages to feel both crowd-pleasing and experimental, because an unorthodox approach is necessary to tell its story.
That story follows Christopher Boone (Edmund Stapleton), a 15-year-old English boy attempting to solve the murder of his neighbor’s dog while managing his unspecified autism spectrum disorder. The production makes use of its performers, sets, light and sound design to attempt to convey the world as Christopher experiences it.
What’s most satisfying about that approach to perspective is it never feels exploitative. The play isn’t especially “about” autism, either. It’s about Christopher, a fascinating character who happens to live with autism. The ways in which he experiences the world are central to his story, but the production never gives in to the temptation to sensationalize those aspects.
Stapleton’s performance does a lot of the legwork toward bringing the audience into Christopher’s world. Anyone who’s grown up with friends or family members with similar autism spectrum disorders will recognize those loved ones in Christopher and themselves in the way those around him modulate their social selves in order to build relationships with him.
The other performers leave a bit to be desired, but this is somewhat by necessity. Since Christopher socializes differently than most people, those around him need to feel slightly distant. But the desire to connect to everyone onstage remains.
It would be interesting to watch two versions of this show back-to-back, one told from Christopher’s perspective, another from his teacher’s or his father’s.
The real stars of Curious Incident are the craftspeople who create the onstage environment. The sets and lighting by T. Erin Gruber, projections by Joel Adria and the sound design by Elijah Lindenberger all work together to truly put the audience into the world as Christopher sees it.
While it’s not uncommon for a show with the production value typical of MTC to use these sensory elements effectively, it’s rare to see a show that actually tells the story itself through light and sound.
The showier of these technical moments, like his first trip to London, are effective. But the most moving moments are the subtle ones, which show Christopher’s passions, how he feels more connected to concepts like mathematics or outer space than to people and how those concepts bring him warmth, comfort and genuine joy.
Unfortunately, there are still aspects that fall short. The people in Christopher’s life, particularly his father, have such compelling arcs that, with a little finesse, could function as genuine, emotional gut-punches rather than merely accessories to Christopher’s story.
There’s a potent visual metaphor in which Christopher uses a toy train set. In many ways, Christopher is the engine of that train. Curious Incident could have taken things to the next level by treating its supporting characters as cars on the train, rather than pieces of the track.
Curious Incident runs at MTC’s John Hirsch Mainstage until Nov. 12. A relaxed performance will be held on Nov. 10 (royaltmtc.ca/relaxed).
Published in Volume 71, Number 9 of The Uniter (November 3, 2016)