Thursday, November 6, 2014

A Dazzling, Inventive, and Moving "Incident"

Review: The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

Julliard grad Alexander Sharp makes one of the most impressive debuts in recent memory as autistic teen Christopher Boone in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time

You have to hand it to those Brits: they certainly aren't afraid of innovative staging techniques. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, the latest dazzlingly theatrical import from London's West End, is one of the most visually arresting plays of the year, featuring an endlessly inventive staging by director Marianne Elliott and co-choreographers Scott Graham and Steven Hoggett. But more importantly, the show (adapted by Simon Stephens from Mark Haddon's bestselling novel) is an engaging, thought-provoking, and utterly moving examination of the challenges faced by an autistic teen and the fallible people tasked with raising him.

Although no one in the show ever utters the "A" word, it is clear that 15 year old Christopher Boone falls somewhere along the autism spectrum. He doesn't like to be touched, has trouble interacting with people who don't say what they mean (metaphors are a particular source of irritation), and interruptions to his routine often prompt wild outbursts. At the same time, Christopher is a mathematical genius whose ordered and logical view of the world translates into a special aptitude with numbers and observation. The play opens with Christopher being accused of murdering his neighbor's dog, and initially follows his quest to find the real culprit despite his father's insistence Christopher mind his own business. To give away much more would spoil the surprise, but let it be said that this curious incident prompts a journey far more concerned with Christopher and his relation to the world than with the death of a domesticated animal.

Christopher is brilliantly embodied by newcomer Alexander Sharp, fresh out of Julliard and making one of the most impressive Broadway debuts in years. Sharp's every tic, mannerism, and carefully selected syllable together create a wholly convincing and completely compelling portrayal of a very special young man. Both Sharp and the play refuse to let Christopher be defined or limited by his condition, but they also don't shy away from the very real challenges faced by an autistic youth in the modern world. More so than any play I've come across, Curious Incident places you inside its protagonist's head and makes you see the world through his eyes. The script, staging, and Sharp's deeply felt performance all combine to make Christopher extremely sympathetic and ensure the audience remains invested in his journey until the very end.

While Sharp does the lion's share of the play's heavy lifting, he is ably supported by the extremely capable ensemble. Francesca Faridany provides a beautifully warm, welcoming presence as Christopher's teacher Siobhan, anchoring the show with her earthy tones and calm demeanor. Ian Barford and Enid Graham do standout work as Christopher's flawed but deeply loving parents; Graham has an especially heartwrenching scene towards the end of the first act that is one of the most honest pieces of acting of the evening. The other members of the ensemble play a collection of bit parts with minimal lines, but they all still manage to make their characters pop. In fact it is the ensemble, more than anyone else on stage, who allows Sharp to soar.

That last sentence is meant literally. The ensemble hoists, lifts, and flips Sharp through a dizzying array of gravity-defying choreography that sends this production's wow factor through the roof. It's difficult to tell where Elliott's staging ends and the choreography by Misters Graham and Hogett begins, so best to just give them joint credit for the most inventive staging to grace Broadway this season. Using little more than the human body, they find ways to make Christopher walk on walls and fly through the air, creating a heightened version of reality that provides vast amounts of insight into how he sees the world.

Elloitt and her team also make excellent use of Bunny Christie's deceptively simple set. Augmented by Finn Ross' sensational video design, what initially appears to be little more than a black box with gridlines becomes a character in and of itself. Lit to perfection by Paule Constable, the set provides an added window into Christopher's ordered yet chaotic mind that is never less than fascinating to look at. Add in the sound design by Ian Dickinson and the electronica-tinged music by Adrian Sutton and Curious Incident becomes a sensory experience unlike any other.

It's easy to get carried away by the stagecraft on display, but all of the special effects in the world are wasted if the story they're supporting isn't worth telling. Thankfully, Christopher's journey of self discover is very much worth the effort, providing a window into the world of an autistic youth on his way to self discovery. Especially as portrayed by the sensational Mr. Sharp, Christopher has a great deal to teach us about perseverance and understanding in a moving narrative about the struggles of everyday life. The fact that these lessons come in a such a glossy, high tech package is only icing on the proverbial cake.

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