The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time opens at Portland Center Stage at the Armory
The play begins with a dead dog, both literally and figuratively. Based on the 2003 novel by Mark Haddon, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Simon Stephens follows a high schooler on the autism spectrum, Christopher, as he investigates the murder of his neighbor’s dog, Wellington. He soon uncovers a large secret his father Ed had been keeping, and, fearing for his safety, runs away. A modern hero’s journey, when he eventually returns home, he has gained confidence and new abilities. The play is, in part, narrated by Christopher’s counselor, Siobhan, under the guise of reading the story of his adventure. Six actors play small roles (policeman, neighbor, etc), and as an ensemble, they add additional narration through physical storytelling and short lines. A critical smash hit, the play premiered in London in August 2012 and went on to win seven Olivier Awards. After transferring to Broadway in 2014, the production won five Tony Awards.
Directed by new Artistic Director Marissa Wolf, the Portland Center Stage production shines brightly. Jamie Sanders excels as Christopher, with an earnest but never precious approach. His strong but soft stage presence grounded the production and helped center others’ performances. Leif Norby and Ayanna Berkshire were excellent as Christopher’s parents. While both characters are deeply flawed and make large mistakes, Norby and Berkshire highlighted their humanity. It is always evident how much the characters’ love Christopher and want the best for him. Bree Elrod elevated the narration as Siobhan and effectively used stillness and silence on stage. All ensemble members deftly switched between characters. The physical storytelling, choreographed by Erika Chong Shuch, brought the narration to life and created interesting stage pictures.
The technical elements, while great, could have been stronger. Alison Heryer’s costumes helped distinguish between different ensemble characters, but, as is common in contemporary theatrical pieces, they weren’t particularly special. Arnulfo Maldonado’s set was simple, versatile, and light-colored, making the stage more vibrant. However, overall the sets, lights, and sounds could have added more to the storytelling. The lights and sounds especially were used to convey Christopher’s mental state and his heightened experience of the world due to sensory sensitivity. But they still felt limited and capable of doing more — perhaps they were limited by the budget.
While the production was superb, I am hesitant to recommend it because of its depiction of autism. Many of the jokes in the show were based in misunderstandings created by Christopher’s autism. Personally, it felt uncomfortable and inappropriate for a largely neurotypical audience to laugh at these jokes. Also, while Jamie Sanders is not neurotypical — he has Tourette’s — he does not have autism. The creative team did include a neurodiversity consultant as well as an autism consultant which likely made his performance more accurate, but it doesn’t help with the ethical and moral issues. Despite the efforts of Portland Center Stage, perhaps the script and the premise cannot be responsibly staged today.
The show runs through April 5, 2020 at Portland Center Stage at the Armory on the Main Stage. Tickets are available at http://www.pcs.org.