With Ruth Griffin at the helm, this Selma ‘Curious Incident’ won’t stop moving

There is no such thing as a static Ruth Griffin play. You will not find actors planted in place, as fixed as telephone poles, when they deliver their lines. Griffin, a Fresno State professor who for years intertwined dance and theater in a series of ambitious and often beautiful directing projects for the university, believes that movement is as much a part of life as breathing.

If you go to a Griffin play and can’t feel a pulse, you might not have one.

Pictured above: Jared Serpa stars in Selma Arts Center’s production of ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.’ Photo: Kyle Lowe

Her latest production is much-anticipated, and she vows to bring to it that sense of all-important movement. “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” a local premiere that opens tonight (Friday, Feb. 15) at the Selma Arts Center, was a huge hit on Broadway in 2013. Based on the popular novel by Mark Haddon, the adaptation by Simon Stephens tells the story of 15-year-old Christopher (played by Jared Serpa), who is brilliant when it comes to abstract mathematics but has problems interpreting the emotional states of the people around him.

The play is part an unlikely murder mystery and part of what Griffin calls a “hero’s quest,” a connection to her love of classical Greek theater. Christopher is determined to uncover the killer of a neighborhood dog, and through his detective work, we learn a little about the way he interacts with the world. Along the way, the betrayals in his life and the joys of his potential come into sharper focus as we meet key figures around him — his father, mother, teacher and neighbors — and dive into his backstory.

The play doesn’t name Christopher’s condition, but he processes the world through logic, not emotion. Griffin, in her director’s notes, remarks simply that he is on the autism scale. She believes that it’s quite possible that the world in which he lives is not what most of us interpret. Perhaps he interprets all the stimuli constantly bombarding our senses — most of which we learn to filter out — as a blinding white light, or a black hole. All she knows is that he has had to figure out coping mechanisms to navigate everyday existence.


“He can’t look into your face and know anything about a person’s emotional state,” she says. “He draws faces to recognize what a feeling looks like, because he doesn’t know.”

For her, the labels don’t matter much. Far more important is helping the audience establish an empathetic bond with Christopher. He is different, yes, but aren’t we all?

“We all have autistic aspects about us,” she says. “We all have our black holes.”

◊     ◊     ◊

The Broadway production of “Curious Incident,” which I saw in New York with the original cast, was breathtaking in terms of the production design. The lighting and scenic design dipped the audience into Christopher’s often overstimulated world. I remember thinking that it was almost too much — the lights and sounds sometimes so dominant that my brain would wander away with thoughts of “how did they do that?” and “oh, what a cool effect!” rather than stay with the drama on stage.

Griffin doesn’t have that problem with the Selma Arts Center production. She does not have a multi-million-dollar budget. But that’s OK with her.

The Munro Review has no paywall but is financially supported by readers who believe in its non-profit mission of bringing professional arts journalism to the central San Joaquin Valley. You can help by signing up for a monthly recurring paid membership or make a one-time donation of as little as $3. All memberships and donations are tax-deductible.

“There’s an advantage of seeing this show in an intimate venue,” she says. “There’s not as much danger of being overdazzled.”

Instead, she hopes to mine the play’s emotional material, bringing the audience in as close as she can. Griffin’s roots in classical Greek theater contribute to a key concept for her in this production. She envisioned the idea of a Chorus, made up of all the cast except Christopher, which is in on this journey with him, so to speak. In the script, various voices and characters often comment on the action. With the Chorus, that process is physicalized. The entire production is choreographed.

She also is turning to a significant Selma Arts Center resource: the work of Dominic Grijalva, whose projection designs can fill in a lot of the visual oomph that Broadway provided.

Here’s an illustration of how Griffin can deliver some of the same kinds of visual effects as the Broadway version. In one part of the show, a flurry of paper descends upon Christopher, creating a sort of whirlwind effect. On Broadway, that effect was likely achieved by stagehands tossing buckets of material from above, letting it float down.

In Selma, however, there is no fly space above the stage. So Griffin enlisted the Chorus to create the “whirlwind” in a stylized manner.

And by having the actors themselves contribute to the visual effects, it makes the little world created on stage even tighter.

◊     ◊     ◊

At heart, Griffin is much more interested in theater that is minimalist by nature instead of expensive sets that need their own computer software. (She comes from the school of what she calls “rough theater,” of traveling minstrels and commedia dell’arte, where you throw all your stuff for a production in the back of your car and just show up to the theater.) On a recent trip to the San Francisco Museum of Modern Art, she spent a lot of time looking at the work of Sol LeWitt, known for his minimalist works. That aesthetic influences the Selma production.

Along with movement, Griffin is fascinated by time. The other major creative concept for the show can best be described as the Japanese concept of jo-ha-kyu. It’s a way of describing the intersection of space and time that is defined as “a concept of modulation and movement” applied in a wide variety of traditional Japanese arts.

Kyle Lowe

Terry Lewis in Selma Arts Center’s ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.’

Simply put, it’s a phrasing of time. Think of it like this: slow in the beginning, then a little bit faster, and then fast.

“When the people in the cast do this jo-ha-kyu, I think that space and time comes together,” she says.

Besides Serpa, a Selma Arts Center veteran who plays the pivotal role of Christopher, that cast includes some well-known Fresno-area theater names. Terry Lewis and Chris Mangels share the role of Christopher’s father. (Lewis plays the first weekend and Mangels the second.) The cast includes Diane Fidalgo, Julie Lucido, Camille Gaston, Juan Luis Guzman, Laramie Woolsey, Bryan Beckstrand, Michael C. Flores, Nwachukwu Oputa, Ben Applegate and Jessica Meredith.

One thing is for sure: They will be moving on that stage. This is a Ruth Griffin show, after all.

In her Fresno State production of “Tales from Ovid,” she had the challenge of turning one of the characters into a tree. She couldn’t afford to put together an extravagant visual effect, so she took the simple route.

“What I did was plaster all the bodies together to make the tree,” she says. “And the audience put it together. That’s what I’m really interested in: using the imagination of the audience.”

Show info

‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,’ a Selma Arts Center production. Opens 7 p.m. Friday, Feb. 15. Continues through Feb. 25. Tickets are $19 general, $17 student/senior, $15 children.

Covering the arts online in the central San Joaquin Valley and beyond. Lover of theater, classical music, visual arts, the literary arts and all creative endeavors. Former Fresno Bee arts critic and columnist. Graduate of Columbia University and Cal Poly San Luis Obispo. Excited to be exploring the new world of arts journalism.

Comments (3)

  • Stephen

    Maestra Griffin comes from the same sorts of theatrical background that I do. My thesis was on Peter Brook, the theatre of cruelty, and the absurd.

    Ruth Griffin is the best auteur, educator, and creator of this amalgam of styles in the country right now.

    Students at Fresno State really have no current concept of the top notch education they’re receiving from Griffin, Brad Myers, Thomas Witt-Ellis, Kim Morin, and the incomparable J. Daniel Herring (and all the rest). In 15-20 years as professionals they’ll thank the lucky stars.

    Can’t wait to see this production.

    • Stephen ~ I could not agree with you more about Ruth Griffin’s remarkable skill and comprehension of the psychological depths of the plays and other works she brings to life.

      In my view her sense of crafting the whole person in her actors and turning on the urgent and living alliance between her actors is “magical relevance”. As an audience member I am always drawn more deeply to life in watching any of her plays or other works.

      I also can’t wait to see “… Curious Incident …” in Selma later this month.
      And wonder where the gods of theatre will take her next.

      Thank you Donald and Stephen for writing so clearly and eloquently about Ms. Griffin’s work. It’s a pleasure to read both reviews as well as Margie’s.

  • Margie Vogt

    I’m really looking forward to this production! I first met Ruth quite a few years ago when my daughter was in her first Ruth Griffin production. I was so impressed with her insight & creative style of directing. I had several more opportunities to see my daughter work with Ruth, and each time was such a positive eye-opening experience. I’m grateful to know her & her amazing work.


Leave a Reply