Sensory overload? The kind teenagers revel in and adults complain about? What about the precarious bombardment felt by a kid on the outer edges of autism?
“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is just that – a high-speed drama that puts you inside the head of Christopher Boone, a super-gifted British teen trying to make sense of the world.
The Broadway and London productions of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” catapulted contemporary drama into immersive theater. Merging a coming-of-age story with a detective plot, the work careens forward at a dizzying pace.
The Fort Lewis College Theatre Department is in the final week of rehearsals for its spring production. The ambitious choice was made, Ginny Davis, professor and chairwoman of the FLC Drama Department, said, before the reality of COVID-19 restrictions set in. Pandemic parameters have challenged the students and compounded the play’s high technical demands. And yet Davis, her cast of 10 and a 14-member creative team will launch online April 1 to 4.
“This play has been fun to work on,” Davis said. “The students have been excited to do theater again, and we’re taking masks and distancing in stride.”
Rehearsing and filming for streaming on stage at the Community Concert Hall at FLC, the cast and crew have wrestled with mandatory restrictions and invented a surprising solution for distancing.
“Everyone will be 6 feet apart” – with unexpected benefits, Davis said.
“Because of COVID, we’re using large sheets of plexiglass. They are like big, rolling dance mirrors with handles, so they can be pushed everywhere,” she said. “The plexiglass sheets also serve as a metaphor for the way Christopher experiences the world. It’s very fluid.”
Davis saw the London production which opened at the National Theatre in 2012 and transferred to the West End the next year. In 2014, she saw the Broadway production. The play won umpteen awards on both sides of the pond and has been embraced by college drama departments for its messages of diversity and inclusivity.
Playwright Simon Stephens adapted Mark Haddon’s 2003 best-selling novel of the same name. The title evokes a familiar Sherlock Holmes mystery, but instead of the famous fictional detective, the sleuth is a teenage mathematical genius. Christopher Boone (portrayed by senior theater major Gustavo Palma) happens to be on the high-functioning end of the autism spectrum. The book and the play see the world through his fast and furious mind.
But Haddon expressly avoided references to autism, which he explained shortly after his novel was published. Interviewed by NPR’s Terry Gross, Haddon said: “It’s not a novel about a boy who has Asperger’s syndrome: It’s a novel about a young mathematician who has some strange behavioral problems.”
The story centers on Christopher’s investigation into the inexplicable death of a neighborhood dog. The detective-story frame with a play-within-a-play structure seems a perfect vehicle to illuminate the machinations of an autistic mind. Seen from Christopher’s point of view, the world is a maze of conflicting signals and patterns.
Palma agrees with Davis about the unexpected bonus of COVID-19 precautions.
“The plexiglass barriers function in three ways,” Palma said. “First as protective shields, secondly as a surface for projections and third, as a metaphor for all the barriers Christopher faces. I’m not a person who is on the autism spectrum, but the writing is so good about this world, that I can imagine what it must be like. I’m on stage the whole time, and everything – blocking, staging, lighting, sound and projection design – is so good and so overstimulating that Christopher’s world is believable.”
Fans of FLC productions will remember Palma in 2019 as Benjy in “My Favorite Year” and, by coincidence, another Benji in last fall’s “Edith Can Shoot Things and Hit Them.” Palma’s post-graduation plans are already in place. He will attend the Stella Adler School of Acting Summer Conservatory in Los Angeles.
Judith Reynolds is an arts journalist and member of the American Theatre Critics Association.