The word curious barely hints at the intensity of the sensory overload at the Des Moines Civic Center through Sunday.
Imagine the inside of a troubled teenager’s brain as a human pinball machine, with a grid of flashing lights and an assault of percussive electronica. Now imagine that assault as the 3-D stage setting for "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time," the rare adaptation of a best-selling novel that enters a whole new dimension of dazzling, strobe-lit theatricality.
So kudos to set designer Bunny Christie, whose wizardry helped propel the production from London to Broadway, where its five Tony awards included best scenic design and lighting, as well as best new play (by Simon Stephens). The cast of a dozen in the Des Moines roadshow production does fine by the material, but they are cogs in this elaborate audio-visual machine.
The British novel by Mark Haddon has been a curious phenomenon since its 2003 publication. Initially classified as a Young Adult mystery, it earned literary accolades and a larger readership through its narrative perspective and distinctive voice. Its protagonist, Christopher Boone, is extraordinarily gifted and just as socially awkward, a condition that would put him somewhere on the autism spectrum.
As adapted by Stephens, the play has three levels of narrative, as it makes spectacularly visual the processes of Christopher’s mind. On one level, it relates what has happened or is happening to Christopher, in the dramatic equivalent of real time. But it also offers a reading of Christopher’s account of what has happened (largely the novel), voiced not only by Adam Langdon as Christopher, the adolescent who thinks and feels too much, but by Maria Elena Ramirez as Siobhan, the special-ed teacher who has encouraged him to write as part of her “life skills” instruction.
The third level is the play itself, a transformation from the page to the stage, which Siobhan suggests and Christopher resists. This is, of course, the very play that the audience is watching, as we attempt to distinguish what is happening within Christopher, or what Christopher believes is happening, from what is really happening.
And if this sounds disorienting, well, welcome to Christopher’s world. His support system does its best to help him cope, with Gene Gillette particularly effective as his father, an ordinary man doing his best with his extraordinary son. He knows that Christopher does not like to be touched, and connects with him through the pressing of fingertips. Yet the tension of trying to manage the unmanageable plainly has him on the verge of explosion.
The mystery of the dead dog, onstage at the start of the production, impaled by a pronged garden implement, turns out to be something of a red herring. Christopher found the dog, but he didn’t kill it, or so he insists, and Christopher is incapable of telling a lie.
His mind is so specific and so literal that he’s consistently telling people either significantly less or a whole lot more than they really want to know. He can’t figure out what adults want or why they behave the way they do. Which makes him pretty much like any other alienated teenager, only more so.
Through the first act, Christopher attempts to solve the mystery of the murdered dog, which leads him to deeper mysteries, ones concerning neighborhood hanky-panky, the dissolution of his parents’ marriage and the disappearance of his mother (dreamy and seductive, as played Felicity Jones Latta).
Act two propels him away from the comparative safety zone of his neighborhood into a very scary and psychologically fraught London, where the staging becomes a nightmare bombardment of lights, sounds and images. Just as the railway journey into the bowels of the big city must feel to Christopher.
All’s well that ends well, if a tad on the sentimental side, as Christopher, his family and the play return full circle, with fresh hope. And then, after the curtain call, comes a real miracle — a high-tech mathematical lesson with special effects, which showcase the staging to its full potential. You’ll have to see it to believe it.
‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’
When: Through Sunday
Where: Des Moines Civic Center
Ticket prices: $35-$123