Sunday, March 10, 2024

"The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" at Lakeshore Players Theatre

To continue Lakeshore Players Theatre's ambitious 71st season, which began with the regional premiere of the smart, poignant, relevant play What the Constitution Means to Me, they're presenting the 2015 Tony-winning Best Play The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, about an autistic boy who goes in search of the truth about a dog and finds the truth about himself. It's a really lovely production of this cleverly constructed and moving play, with a strong ensemble cast and inventive design, that makes you feel all the feels. But it's only running for two weekends, so head to charming White Bear Lake to experience this Curious Incident through March 17. And then get ready for the conclusion of this exciting season with the rarely done solo play I Am My Own Wife, a for-kids production of Pinocchio, and the hilarious social satire musical Urinetown. Good things are happening out here in the suburbs.

The hero of our story (based on the 2003 novel of the same name) is 15-year old Christopher, who lives in Swindon, England, about 80 miles west of London (note: this production does not use British accents, which is a bit disconcerting at times when they use British slang, but in general does not detract from the storytelling). The titular incident is when Christopher finds his neighbor's dog murdered, stabbed with a garden fork (which is British for pitchfork). He is greatly disturbed, and vows to find out who the murderer is, even though it means leaving his comfort zone and talking to his neighbors. His mother died two years ago so he lives with his father, who tells him to drop it and not make trouble. But Christopher continues with his investigation, which leads to uncovering not only what happened to the dog, but even more pivotal truths about himself and his family. He successfully travels to London on his own, despite the overwhelming stimuli for a boy with his condition, and eventually returns home to take a special test in maths (which is British for math). Through his adventures Christopher finds that he's more capable than he thought he was, and as able to grow and learn as anyone.*

Siobhan (Katie Rowles-Perich) and Christopher (Jackson Hoemann)
(photo by Sobbotka Photography)
The story is told through Christopher's school counselor Siobhan reading a book he wrote about his experiences, while we see some of the scenes acted out. There's even reference to the school making his book into a play, which results in some fun fourth-wall breaking and several meta layers of storytelling.* Under the direction of Kivan Kirk, the strong 13-person cast handles this complex storytelling well, in fact they excel at it. Most of the cast remains on stage for most of the show, observing, dressed in neutral grays, donning a costume piece or two and jumping in to play a role when called upon. It has a charming "we're all in this together putting on a show" kind of feel, and also features some physicality and movement that aids in the storytelling (movement director Caitlin Sparks)

Jackson Hoemann is so good as Christopher, conveying his matter-of-fact way of seeing the world, his confusion when he encounters things he doesn't know, and his curiosity in discovering the way the world works. Katie Rowles-Perich portrays his teacher Siobhan as someone with great empathy and patience for her student, and the two have a palpable trust and connection. Dan Brabec and Kamala Stromwall are also great as Christopher's parents, neither of which are entirely likable people, but still we sense that they love Christopher and are trying to do their best to care for him.

Christopher (Jackson Hoemann) and the ensemble
(photo by Sobbotka Photography)
The set is comprised of giant Tetris blocks, a reference to Christopher's favorite video game. I've seen two local productions of this play, as well as the Broadway tour, and I've never seen a Tetris-inspired set before. It's quite ingenious and fun, as the ensemble moves the huge pieces around and fits them together to create different locations, from home to school to train station. But they're not just simple blocks. Some have hidden compartments from which props are pulled, some of them are video screens, some of them are a sort of neon marker board, with objects and locations displayed or drawn on the screens. It's a wonderfully successful design, including lighting and sound, that represents Christopher's unique way of seeing the world, although the manipulation of these large set pieces perhaps contributes to the three-hour runtime of the play. (Scenic design by Brady Whitcomb, lighting design by Alex Clark, costume design by Meghan Kent, sound design by Born into Royalty, original composition by Torgo.)

I was impressed with Lakeshore's unique staging of this unique play. My one disappointment is that while the script calls for the explanation of a math problem post curtain call, this is the only production I've seen of this play that does not provide said math proof. Apparently there were handouts in the lobby, but I did not see them, and it was not announced in any way. Maybe only math nerds like myself care about this, but when they tell us they're doing to do something and then they don't, it's disappointing. But other than this minor quibble, this is a successful and inventive staging of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time, of which only a handful of performances remain!

*Some text borrowed from what I've written about previous productions.