THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME: Touching But Don’t Touch
A Theater Review by Julinda D. Lewis
At: The November Theatre Marjorie Arenstein Stage
Performances: September 21 – October 14, 2018
Ticket Prices: $30-52
Info: (804) 282-2620 or www.virginiarep.org
Every now and again a play comes along that stands alone, defies description, breaks away from the normal genres. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time seems to be one of those plays. Written by Simon Stephens and based on the novel by Mark Haddon, the play concerns an exceptional teen, his adventure, and his relationships with others. What makes it different is that the young man, Christopher, appears to have some form of autism, and he is a savant, a mathematical genius, as well as the author’s device of staging the story as a play within a play, and the designers’ decisions to include lots and lots of technology, mostly in the form of multiple projections.
The title refers to the death of a neighbor’s dog, for which Christopher, played by Michael Manocchio, is initially blamed. In the course of his detecting, Christopher upsets neighbors, infuriates his dad, and uncovers disturbing news about his mother. He also learns some astonishing and life-affirming things about himself. Manocchio, who is new to the Richmond theater community, is believable in this role. His reactions to being touched and his sharpness of mind, along with his apparent deficit of social skills that make him sound alternately arrogant and childlike remind me of students I have encountered over the years.
Some years ago, I came across a book written by Temple Grandin, PhD, a professor and autistic savant known for her work in the field of animal behavior. What struck me about Dr. Grandin’s book as well as about this play is the authors’ ability to present the point of view of the autistic person in a way that draws others into an entirely new and unfamiliar world. It is sometimes uncomfortable, and many of us do not have the tools to navigate this world. The use of technology, including sound, lights, and screens, helps create this world for us, the audience. It may as close as many of us will ever come to understanding the point of view of someone on the autistic spectrum.
A device and a strength of The Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is that it tells a story, tapping into a history and culture of storytelling, sometimes using a narrator. Emelie Faith Thompson flawlessly fills this role as Siobhan, Christopher’s teacher or paraprofessional aide – it’s never quite clear exactly what her job description is. In her role as narrator and caretaker, Thompson is omnipresent and caring, carrying the story line, explaining, sometimes digging for clarity, but her own character is never given depth or definition. Both Joe Pabst as Christopher’s dad, Ed and Laine Satterfield as the mom, Judy are presented as loving, caring people who are also deeply, humanly flawed. The rest of the cast, including Sara Collazo, Matthew Radford Davies, Adam Valentine, Andrew C. Boothby, Raven Lorraine Wilkes, Irene Ziegler, Axle Burtness, and Sanam Laila Hashemi play multiple roles as school staff, neighbors, passengers on a train and more; they even portray inanimate objects such as an ATM.
Set in Swindon, a town in South West England, and in London, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time requires the cast to maintain British accents. I think they do most of the time, but I became so consumed in the play that I really didn’t pay much attention to that detail. The dialect coach was Erica Hughes. The design team responsible for this simultaneously bright and dim set, filled with little surprises, like the model train that takes a symbolic journey across the stage, includes scenic design by Tennessee Dixon, costumes by Sue Griffin, lighting by BJ Wilkinson, and sound design by Julian Evans.
Virginia Rep artistic director Nathaniel Shaw’s direction includes lots of organic movement, which the program lists as choreography – something seldom seen in a non-musical production. Shaw’s direction and storytelling techniques here reminded me of last season’s River Ditty, a play I found difficult to embrace, but here his distinct style of directing seemed to work much better or at least I was able to connect with it on a more organic level. He established an environment that drew his excellent cast and his audience into an alternate reality for some two and a half hours, creating a cohesive theatrical experience that simultaneously entertains, makes you think, and touches the heart. There’s also an amazing little scene after the final curtain in which Christopher very entertainingly gets to explain his favorite mathematics problem from his Level A exams. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is a curiously satisfying production.
Julinda D. Lewis is a dancer, teacher, and writer who was born in Brooklyn, NY and now lives in Eastern Henrico County.
Photo Credits: Aaron Sutten