Village Theatre’s production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, on now through April 21 (Issaquah) and April 26 to May 19 (Everett), is a well-designed, well-acted, feel-good play — and a thought-provoking one as well.
Plenty of books are turned into stage productions. But even if the adaptation avoids butchering a perfectly good book (I’m looking at you, Matilda the Musical), there’s usually only so much it can add to the original.
This show is different. The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, based on Mark Haddon’s best-selling 2003 novel (which was ubiquitous in the hands of Seattle readers when it came out), is faithful to the original while giving further life to the text. By imagining the sometimes-cacophonous world through the main character’s eyes, and adding a great narrator built into the play, it makes the matter-of-fact-by-design language of the book much more impactful.
The staging is curious from the start. As the audience files in, the stage is dark, save an illuminated object — which looks like a large lever perhaps — sticking up from the center of the stage. The stage itself is a huge, busy black and white checkerboard-style grid, some 36 by 36 tiles across. When the play begins, the object is quickly revealed to be a garden fork. And the fork is sticking up from having speared and killed the neighbor’s dog, named Wellington.
Main character Christopher John Francis Boone, age 15¼ years, stumbles across the grisly scene, gathers up the dead dog, and rocks back and forth with it until the neighbor finds him — and promptly assumes he killed her dog. Christopher, who loves dogs, sets out to find the real killer.
Although the mystery is about the dog, it’s clear the story really isn’t. Indeed, the mystery is solved by intermission; but by then a new mystery has opened up, sending Christopher off on another adventure to find the truth about his family, and to establish how far he can go when he stakes out his own independence.
Although the topic is never mentioned by name, The Curious Incident is widely regarded as being about autism spectrum disorder. Both of those facts are important. The latter because it colors the whole narrative. And the former because it’s not a story that pathologizes. It’s not a story about a diagnosis, or about “differently abledness,” or about trying to “fix” somebody or “overcome” something. It’s about a teenage boy, the lens through which he sees the world, and its impacts on him. Alongside that, it’s about the way in which his parents and others interact with those the world has labeled as different.
Artistic Director Jerry Dixon directed the show, his first time directing since taking the helm at Village last year. Going into the process, Dixon had this to say about the show and its lead character:
Traditionally shows follow the growth of a main character. In this show, Christopher is not the character who needs to grow and change. Instead we see the evolution and change of the adult characters in his life – and I think that’s really special. I hope everyone who sees this show walks away thinking, “how can I be a better person?”
As it generally does, Village has collected a great cast for this show, beginning with its lead actor. Michael Krenning stars as Christopher, and was superb in the role. Krenning must play a difficult balance of very bright; particular and matter-of-fact in speech; still juvenile; and naive about the way the world works. Whether he’s running away from home, defying authority figures, or scurrying around on the subway tracks, the audience must stick with Christopher — and share his enthusiasm for his pursuit, too. Krenning pulls that off tremendously. His Christopher is a character to cheer for.
Jéhan Òsanyìn, as the co-lead character of Siobhan, was superb as well. Siobhan serves dual roles, both as Christopher’s teacher and as a narrative device added for the stage version. In the latter role, Siobhan tells much of the story, as a teacher reading aloud Christopher’s narrative in the form of the book he has written. As teacher, Siobhan is no pushover, instead pushing back on Christopher when he needs a challenge, but serving as his biggest advocate as well. Òsanyìn is a great storyteller as narrator and great actor as teacher, playing convincingly the mentor/teacher we’d all like to have: sharp, intuitive, patient, compassionate.
The other main characters are Christopher’s father, Ed (played by James D. Sasser), and Kathryn Van Meter as his mother, Judy (who, though Christopher knows she is deceased, reappears in memories and other ways). It was refreshing to see a father portrayed who’s a true parent — taking a real interest in his son’s life, and doing the labor that accompanies that. Not that Ed is a saint; among other things, he’s occasionally fed up with Christopher, and we get the impression he villainizes the mother, too. The two parents are very different; and Sasser and Van Meter play off of each other well.
They’re supported by a great ensemble of six — Anne Allgood (who always seems to play the villain), Rob Burgess, Keiko Green, Eric Polani Jensen, Cheryl Massey-Peters, and William Shindler — who play roles as varying as neighbors, police officers, and commuters. Allgood’s roles include an inanimate object — a cash machine — and she’s a hoot.
Much of the story relied on showing, not telling, how cacophonous certain aspects of the world around can be to Christopher, and the design work was critical in that. The production team did a great job, with relatively simple staging, bringing the lights, sound, staging and choreography together and convey those aspects convincingly.
In that regard, two points in particular stand out. The first is at the very beginning, when Christopher is accused of killing the dog, and police descend to question him. After being questioned for a while, it’s not much of a spoiler to reveal that Christopher hits the police officer. Without the design indicators that this was a high-pressure situation, Christopher lashing out could have seemed unprovoked; but with the use of lights and sounds, the mounting stress came through until it boiled over, and it’s not hard to empathize with his response.
(It also requires noting here that race and place were obvious factors. Had this been a Black child or adult, in America, and especially one who lashed out even weakly and perhaps deservedly at a police officer, we all can imagine how that could have played out quite differently, and tragically. For more specificity, see reviews of SHOT here, and of Queer, Mama. Crossroads here. Both of those shows are currently running.)
Another occasion in which the design work was particularly necessary and effective was in the subway scenes when Christopher ventures out on his own. Again, with little added to the stage, the designers managed to capture the overwhelming flashes and sounds of the city: the danger of the tracks, the movement of the cars, and Christopher’s evading of the dangers and people on the hunt for him.
I also appreciated about this design that although there’s a lot going on for the senses, it’s not overwhelming (read: headache-inducing) to watch. There aren’t flashing strobes, blinding spotlights, smoky haze, or speakers booming. It conveyed what it needed to convey, and it looked beautiful while doing it, without going overboard.
Two other tricks added to the design effectiveness. One was the busy checkerboard tiled floor, which always made it feel like there was a lot more going on. And the second was the use of rolling chalkboards (at least six of them), which quickly framed scenes and reduced the stage size, giving a claustrophobic feel if properly blocking off the area around the action, even when little else was on the stage.
There were still some occasions when the stage felt way too bare and they could have used that tactic more effectively then, too; that open space was particularly obvious when watching it from the balcony on a return trip. Although I’m often agnostic on balcony vs. floor, and sometimes even prefer the balcony, this is one where I suggest orchestra seating — preferably in the front half — to get the full intensity effect. That may not be as much of an issue with the different layout at Village’s second theatre, in Everett, when the production heads there April 26 through May 19.
In both the north and east sides, Village has brought professional-quality, big-production theatre out into the suburbs, expanding the geography of the big show beyond Seattle’s confines. And for (fellow) Seattleites, it’s really not that long of a trip. With free parking and good bars and entertainment (e.g., Levitate in Issaquah; the Funko Pop! headquarters and the Independent Beer Bar in Everett), you can make a full evening of it.
Village’s staging of The Curious Incident is a well-designed, well-acted, feel-good play, that’s also thought-provoking — not the least, about how other people experience the world that’s around all of us. It’s a great evening of theatre. Recommended.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time runs through 4/21 at Village Theatre in Issaquah, then 4/26 through 5/19 at Village in Everett. Tickets up to $74, available here and here. For showtimes, visit Calendar page. Accessibility notes: restrooms are multi-stall and gendered in both locations; at Issaquah, gender-neutral single-stall restrooms are available on balcony level by talking with house manager. Theatre and common areas are wheelchair accessible.
Chase D. Anderson is Editor & Producer of NWTheatre.org.