Director Tommy Wedge opens his director’s note stating that The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is an intimidating play. The script is masterful. The acting requirements are challenging from the emotionally complex main characters to an ensemble that not only plays multiple characters but also is tasked with representing the multiple settings of the play with their movement, positioning, and the use of simple props and uniform blocks. The technical requirements are equally demanding if not more so. The production at Saginaw Valley State University on Wednesday, February 20, 2019 is to be celebrated for rising up to meet the many challenges of this brilliant play. I must also take a moment to commend SVSU for offering a sensory friendly performance as their Sunday matinee in order to make the play accessible to audiences on the spectrum.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night Time by Simon Stephens is based on the 2003 best selling novel of the same title by Mark Haddon. The story follows Christopher, a fifteen-year-old with Asperger’s Syndrome, as he attempts to solve the mystery of who killed his neighbor’s dog only to be faced with a much bigger mystery. Like a typical bildungsroman story, Christopher bravely ventures into the unknown and returns changed for the better. As dramaturg Rhiannon Hall writes, “Christopher, after all, is more than his diagnosis.“
Aside from an uplifting story, the play is also meant to allow the audience to experience what life might be like for someone on the Autism Spectrum. Using projections on a huge screen as a backdrop, the audience sees how Christopher takes a very definitive and logical approach to most situations. On this screen a grid is almost always projected, sometimes superimposed over maps, pictures, and words. This is not just entertaining visual stimulation for the audience to help them envision the setting, but it is also a window into how Christopher processes information, like a methodical search of his house or the navigation of a strange city. The projections by Andy Harrington were masterful and a Herculean endeavor that was almost always executed very cleanly. Aside from showing us how Christopher processes information, these projections are also used to show when Christopher’s ability to process becomes overwhelmed because of over-stimulation or emotional stress. The single grid would blur into two separate grids that would slide back and forth, for example, to highlight such moments.
While the use of these projections and the masterful grid of LED lights that formed a grid on the floor were an integral and creative part of the storytelling, The lights and sound effects, when Christopher was overwhelmed by his environment or emotions, could have been more jarring to the audience. The choice was right, but it could have been stronger so that the audience would be forced, for a moment, to squint at bright lights and cringe at the volume of the humming sounds meant to recreate the character’s overstimulation. Having said this, making an audience physically uncomfortable is asking a theatre to take a bit of a risk. Still, it is very powerful when a production can employ discomfort for the sake of understanding.
Jared Kaufman was incredibly believable as the main character, Christopher. His physicality and vocal intonation was masterful. He had excellent comedic timing and believable manic moments. Hannah Ducolon, as Judy, and Brianne Dolney, as Siobhan, were equally convincing in their performances. Ducolon struck a perfect balance that made the audience both despise her for her selfish abandonment of Christopher, and yet empathetic toward her acknowledgment of her maternal failing and attempts to mend their relationship. Dominic Pnacek as Ed made it easy to believe in his love and dedication for his son. However, I had trouble believing in his capacity for violence. He was just too darn nice.
The ensemble deserve their own paragraph if not their own article as well. They were masterful in their choreography, their ability to portray multiple characters, mirror Christopher’s experience, and to create the variety of settings from houses to trains. My two favorite configurations were the sea in which Judy swims and Christopher’s imaginary spaceship. These and many other “worlds” were wonderfully choreographed by Abigail Burgess, Natasha Nash, and Tommy Wedge. Megan Mitchell deserves special recognition for her portrayal of Mrs. Sheers, Mrs. Gascoyne, and (perhaps my favorite) an ATM. But all of the cast members made strong physical choices to differentiate their many characters.
I highly suggest that you see this critically acclaimed play at Malcolm Field Theatre for Performing Arts in Saginaw Valley State University. You will be filled with a sense of wonder, a better understanding of Autism Spectrum Disorder, and belief in the triumph of the human spirit when faced with that which might first overwhelm us. Plus, if your heart doesn’t melt when Bennett the Dog takes the stage, then Ed should stick a fork in you, because you’re done.
Additional credits: Jerry Dennis (Scenic Designer), Peggy Mead-Finizio (Lighting Designer), Jennifer Lothian (Costume Designer), Devin Burke (Prop Designer), Joshua Lloyd (Sound Design/Music Producer), Natasha Nash (Make-up and Hair Designer), Melanie Frasca (Stage manager)
Performances: February 22 - 25; Thursday, Friday and Saturday: 7:30 PM; Sunday (sensory friendly): 3 PM.
Tickets are available at the box office or online at https://www.svsu.edu/theatre/.