Review: ‘Curious Incident’ is a beautiful, flawed and deeply moving experience
This might be too deep a dive into ontological waters, especially for the opening lines of a theater review, but here goes: Does Christopher, the 15-year-old boy at the center of the fascinating and moving play “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” (at the Selma Arts Center through Saturday, Feb. 23), perceive the world the same way we do?
Pictured above: Jared Serpa delivers a significant performance as Christopher in ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.’ Photo: Kyle Lowe / Selma Arts Center
Ack, I think I’ve already backed myself into a corner. (To give this introductory interlude a bit of a backstory, think of it like an intro-level college-philosophy-course exercise producing mild levels of anxiety in me as an undergraduate.) How do I know that we — I’m talking about myself, the writer, and you, the reader — have any commonality when it comes to perception of the world through exterior stimuli? Take, for example, a sunset. I see a glorious, colorful, overphotographed cliche. How do I know that you don’t see it in black and white? Or infrared, for that matter? Or binary code? Maybe you encounter the world aurally, not visually, and “see” it as a series of high-pitched descending chromatic scales. Why not?
This is a rather roundabout way of saying that “Curious Incident” is a thinker. A big thinker. On one level, it’s a compelling tale about a working-class English teenager on the spectrum — the word “autism” is never mentioned in the script — and the way he first confronts, and then figures out how to make his way through, a world in which he doesn’t feel very comfortable. On another level, however, it seems much more than that. I am impressed with how the play — adapted with theatrical finesse by Simon Stephens from the popular novel by Mark Haddon — puts us into the shoes of its title character. It reminds us that there isn’t necessarily any “right way” to interact with reality. Whatever that is.
The Selma production is a beautifully kinetic and intellectually charged experience. Director Ruth Griffin (a Fresno State theater and dance professor) brings us a meticulously staged, fiercely acted and emotionally potent experience. There are moments that approach transcendence. (And there are some parts that don’t attain that level.) Here’s a rundown:
The story: It’s a mind-bender. Christopher (played by Jared Serpa) is shocked when he discovers that his neighbor’s dog has been murdered with a garden implement. Who could do such a thing? As we learn more about this fascinating main character — he’s a math and science prodigy, hates to be touched, and has problems gauging the emotional temperature of the people around him — he turns detective, poking his nose into “adult” matters and in the process setting him on his own path to independence.
The “wow” performance: Jared Serpa is superb as Christopher. I’ve been watching this young actor grow over the past few years, and in his big chance at a hugely important (and showy) role, he succeeds in spectacular fashion. Serpa brings a taut, lean precision to Christopher. A lot of the impact comes from the physical choices he makes: sticking his fingers out at awkward angles; furrowing his forehead; endlessly twisting the drawstrings of his sweatshirt. It would be tempting for an actor to make this character an exaggerated bundle of tics and twitches, but Serpa makes those movements seem organic. What’s more, Serpa always commands the stage in this lengthy show, never releasing the audience from his psychic grip. It’s an impressive performance.
The acting: A sturdy and dedicated cast excels through to the ensemble characters. Terry Lewis, who played Christopher’s father at the first weekend of performances, gives us a complicated, flawed man who both chafes at having to care for his high-maintenance son as a single dad but also demonstrates paternal love and loyalty in his own way. (Chris Mangels takes over the role the second weekend.) Julie Lucido brings a sort of brusque, selfish compassion as Judy, who figures in an important plot twist. Diane Fidalgo is grounded and empathetic as Siobhan, Christopher’s advocate, teacher and the play’s part-time narrator. And Juan Luis Guzman offers some impressively menacing moments as Roger, an ex-neighbor who doesn’t like Christopher.
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The direction and staging: Griffin has a movement-based fire to her spirit, and this “Curious Incident” often soars with a fluidity and assuredness that makes it a visceral theatrical experience. The Broadway production had a lot of money to achieve some amazing visual effects, and Griffin (with probably one-hundredth the budget) captures some of the same magic: Christopher soars through “space” on the shoulders of the ensemble. A woman becomes an ATM. The London Underground comes to life through sheer power of imagination. Bodies swirl, stomp and glide. Throughout, this production feels nimble and alive. Dan Aldape’s lighting design and Regina Harris’ sound design add to the effect. I especially like Griffin’s music design, which gives a heightened, introspective ambient background.
The flaws: I’ll be methodical here (and my detail should not overwhelm all the positives I see in the show):
• The production is too long, at least by 15 to 20 minutes, maybe more. (The 2 p.m. Saturday performance that I attended started a few minutes late, and I didn’t get out of the theater until 4:50.) A serious slowdown occurs in the first act when the recounting of an emotional letter starts to feel sluggish. The second act drags, sometimes badly. It has the slightly overstuffed feel of an adapted novel. An extended part of the narrative depicting Christopher’s encounter with public transportation probably worked better on Broadway because of the fancy set and effects. (I’ll never forget the New York version when the subway makes its “entrance.”) While Griffin uses her ensemble to clever effect as she recreates London’s thick crowds, it’s a nice effect, but the interlude seems to go on forever.
• The projections (by Dominic Grijalva and Sami Valles) don’t have the impact I was expecting. The animated images projected on the floor of the sharply raked stage are nice, but even with a clear line of sight from a seat on the side, it was difficult to make out what the tendrils of light were depicting. Some of the projections (an image of avalanching letters, for example) feel a bit dated.
• The seating: For a vast majority of the audience, seated in the non-elevated, non-raked chairs and stuck directly behind the person seated in front of them, it was a challenge. (I have written about this before and will be as emphatic as I can about it this time around: Selma Arts Center has to do something about the sight lines in the auditorium. It isn’t just important; it’s critical. It’s the difference between putting on a pageant in a church hall and enveloping an audience in the magic of theater. What’s the use of presenting cutting-edge fare such as “A Gentleman’s Guide to Love and Murder” and “Be More Chill” — both upcoming productions — if as an audience member you can’t see what’s going on?
• The accents need work overall. The show is obviously set in the greater London environs, yes. But if your cast doesn’t have the time or training to master the intricacies of working-class English accents, why not just drop them altogether? It’s already a highly stylized show. If the audience were bothered by the use of American accents, that discomfort would probably vanish after five minutes.
• I never connected with the show’s theatrical self-awareness. The Brechtian techniques that remind audience members that we are watching a play (when, for example, Siobhan breaks character to tell Christopher that he can share a mathematics problem with the audience after the curtain call) feel fussy and unnecessary.
The creativity and beauty: Again, I burrow into this show because it is so ambitious and provocative. Griffin really does offer an inspired directorial vision. Yes, there are some limitations in terms of scope and scale, but the show is so thoughtful and lovingly staged that any flaws are overtaken by the care and precision on display.
The takeaway: Which brings me back to how I started this (lengthy) review. In the end, the power of this production, at least to me, is how it plays with the idea of perception itself. It made me think of my grandmother in those last days when she seemed to be floating away in a fog of dementia, and I remember thinking how awful that must be, how she must be trapped in some dark place. But then I started to ponder: How do I know what she’s perceiving? I can’t be inside her head. Perhaps what she was seeing is something wonderful, gentle and much more pleasing than the inside of this nursing home. Years later, long after she’s gone, I see “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” in Selma, and this memory rings as true and clear as a church bell on a cold winter night. For that I am thankful.