The best kind of theatre, for me, challenges audience members now living in what has become an increasingly self-centered world. It encourages them to think, to see past the surface, to leave the theatre a little more learned or possibly more empathetic toward a cause or a community. “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” invites audiences into the life and mind of Christopher Boone, a 15-year-old boy with a condition never quite spelled out, though certainly indicating he exists somewhere on the autism spectrum. The production masterfully incorporates a praiseworthy script, gravity-defying choreography and a technologically advanced, grid-like set to help audiences better delve into the mind of the story’s protagonist.
“The Curious Incident…” has found its way to the Oriental Theatre (24 W Randolph St.) while traveling across the country on its first national tour. Simon Stephen’s stage adaptation comes from English author Mark Haddon’s novel of the same name. The play originally opened on London’s West End in 2012 before opening a Broadway production in Oct. 2014. The show found smashing success on the Great White Way taking home the 2015 Tony Award for Best Play and becoming the longest running play on Broadway in over a decade.
The 150-minute performance abruptly begins with flashing strobe lights, uncomfortably loud digitized sounds, a stage filled with frenzied movement from actors and a screaming Christopher. It is in this moment that audiences find themselves thrust into the hyper-sensitive and on-edge world of Christopher, a boy fixated on things like mathematics and his pet rat, Toby, who struggles with overly honest interpersonal communication and any type of physical contact.
Those familiar with the novel will be happy to know that very little has been compromised in this stage version. In fact, I would argue that the novel has only been enhanced through the visual rendering. The only difference is that the show is told as a play-within-a-play format, with Christopher’s journal of personal events serving as the plot. “The Curious Incident…” follows Christopher after he becomes obsessed with solving the mystery surrounding the death of Wellington, a neighbor’s dog who is found with a pitchfork stuck in him. Despite multiple harsh warnings from his father, Ed (Gene Gillette), to give up this detecting, Christopher secretly continues on, uncovering much more than he ever anticipated. Gillette demonstrates tender parental love while also capturing the mental exhaustion and frustrations that can come with raising a special needs child.
Adam Langdon stars as Christopher, with Benjamin Wheelwright playing the role at certain performances. Langdon, a recent Juilliard graduate, gives a compelling portrayal in the role, allowing audiences to connect and understand him through his lack of connection to those in his world. The physically and mentally demanding role sends Langdon soaring in the air and walking on walls through assistance from his fellow castmates. The single viewpoint taken by the show puts significant pressure on Langdon, who never spends a moment offstage, but the young actor certainly rises to the challenge perfectly capturing and embodying every tick and trigger Christopher experiences. His emotional investment into the role translates into a learning opportunity for audiences who otherwise might fail to fathom a world like Christopher’s or the impact it has on those who love him or others like him the most.
The technical elements in the show are visually stunning and unlike anything I’ve seen executed on the stage before. Marianne Elliott’s beautiful direction is complemented with Paule Constable’s lighting design, Finn Ross’ video design, Scott Graham’s choreography and Ian Dickinson’s sound design. Throughout the show, these elements are fused together to give audiences a more accurate idea of the inner-workings of Christopher’s brain. Without giving away too much, Christopher finds himself at a train station during the play and attempting to travel to London by himself. What would be an effortless activity for the average person, is shown to be difficult for Christopher. Sounds become significantly amplified as he tries to avoid physical contact with the swarms of passing ensemble members traveling in crisp and synchronized patterns, signs are frantically displayed across the stage in dizzying patterns, lights flash in an overwhelming rainbow of colors. The multitude of elements come together to create a cacophonous environment, which sends an agitated Christopher crippling to the ground in extreme panic, unable to move or think clearly.
This riveting production is truly one-of-a-kind, and one that you don’t want to miss out on. Audience members might leave realizing that they aren’t all that different from Christopher. Trying to maneuver the unknown while discovering truths about ourselves seems to become increasingly more difficult when trying to navigate a world saturated with an overwhelming amount of people, thoughts, ideas and material goods. With a little focus, determination and bravery similar to that of Christopher’s, we might find ourselves impressed with how much we are actually capable of accomplishing.
“The Curious Incident…” is playing through Dec. 24 at the Oriental Theatre (24 W. Randolph St.). Tickets are $25-$90 and can be purchased at Broadway In Chicago box offices, online at www.BroadwayInChicago.com or by calling (800) 775-2000.