Ghazal Azarbad, as Siobhan, a special-ed teacher, and Daniel Doheny, as Christopher, who has Asperger’s, often work in tandem in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. (photo by David Cooper)
Left, right, left, right. Follow the red line. Left, right, left, right. Through the tunnel. Up the stairs. Left, right, left, right. Take the A-Levels, get an A star, become a mathematical genius. Left, right, left, right….
Such are the thought processes of Christopher Boone, a 15-year-old with Asperger syndrome, who is the central character in The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.
Asperger’s is a developmental disorder on the autism spectrum characterized by repetitive, single-minded actions, inappropriate social interaction and highly focused interests. In Christopher’s case, those interests involve solving a mystery about a neighbour’s dog that was killed with a pitchfork; writing a story about how he solves the crime; and doing his A-Levels math exams because he wants to be a mathematical genius.
The story he writes becomes a play within the play performed by the staff at the special school he attends. The audience is taken on this journey by his special-education teacher reading from the text he wrote; by Christopher narrating events in the robotic fashion that is often symptomatic of Asperger’s; and by the actual events interwoven through the show in present-day and flashbacks.
The pace is frenetic, even mind-numbing at times, and works as a metaphor for Christopher’s view of the world – where things we take for granted don’t make sense to him and he has to create his own processes and order for self-protection.
Christopher can describe and explain a black hole to the smallest scientific detail, but cannot understand that he shouldn’t call his classmates “stupid.”
He can quote statistics at random – “You are most likely to be killed by a family member on Christmas day” – but doesn’t like yellow food.
Similar to the character in the TV program The Good Doctor, an autistic surgeon with savant syndrome, Christopher is a genius in his realm of specialty – mathematics – but must do things his way, which is constantly putting him at odds with the rest of world.
Protecting him from this outside harm is his father, with whom he lives in Swindon, England. As patient as his father tries to be, the challenge of dealing with Christopher’s proclivity to be single-minded, as exhibited in his investigation of the dog’s death, drives his father to rage, eventually leading to a physical altercation in which Christopher is hit. Nonetheless, Christopher cannot let go of this obsession. “Sometimes, you have to ignore what people tell you to do,” he says, which is characteristic of someone with Asperger’s.
One day, Christopher finds out that his father has lied to him about what happened to his mother. Up until this point, his father was one of the few people Christopher could trust, even to just touch him or hold him. When this trust is broken, Christopher sets out on what, for him, is a terrifying and difficult journey.
In one of the more dazzling, complicated and mezmerizing scenes of the play, Christopher must make his way through the complexity of the train stations, dancing in and around the other travelers, while avoiding touching them, and then figuring out the timing of how one actually steps onto the train car from the platform, which he’s never done.
He eventually finds what he’s looking for, but the result is not what had hoped for. He ends up returning to Swindon to take his A-Level maths, in an effort to get an A-star rating, and to try and rebuild the relationship with his father.
While local rising star Daniel Doheny is stellar in this challenging performance, and Todd Thomson is compelling as the tormented father, what really makes the play brilliant is the creative team. The direction, movement, blocking, timing, set design and lighting are remarkable. Jewish community member Itai Erdal was the lighting designer of the production. And particular mention must go to a simple but highly effective prop that lifts and drops part of the stage, turning it into a train platform for one scene, then lowering it to form the seat on the train in another.
As a caution, the actors bring everything to bear in this performance, so be prepared for very loud yelling, moaning and frenetic action – often by multiple actors at once, as the chorus works to amplify Christopher’s feelings and racing mind – as well as some swearing. A “relaxed” special performance runs Sept. 30 that includes lower sound levels, lights and projections that are more subdued, and a relaxation station in the lobby equipped with a live feed so audience members can take a break from being inside the theatre without missing what’s happening on stage.
Though this play can be troublesome, chaotic and even exhausting to watch, it is one of my favourites of the past year and I highly recommend it.
The Curious Incident runs until Oct. 7 at the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage (artsclub.com).
Baila Lazarus is a Vancouver-based writer and principal media strategist at bailalazarus.com.