Encore Michigan

Tech and talent immerse audience in Farmers Alley’s ‘Curious Incident’

Review March 16, 2019 Bridgette Redman

KALAMAZOO, MICH.–Mark Haddon’s book, The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is an amazing piece of work because it takes you inside the head of someone who is neuro-atypical and gets you to understand and think the way they do.

Simon Stephens adaptation into a stage version is stunning because it takes that same story and gets you to experience the physical world of someone with a sensory disorder all while telling a strong story that is highly character driven.

J. Scott Lapp directs the production of this show at Farmer’s Alley where they have pulled out all the stops—technical and artistic—to make for a breath-taking evening of theater.

In fact, it is hard to know what to praise first or most loudly—the outstanding work of a technical team that used complex projections, set building, sound and lighting in a perfectly timed manner or the superior acting ability of a talented ensemble lead by the magnificent Troy Hussmann whose performance was superlative.

The Curious Incident tells the story of 15-year-old Christopher Boone who goes to a school with high-needs students, is extraordinarily talented with math, cannot stand to be touched, cannot tell a lie, has a detailed memory and easily becomes obsessed.

At the start of the play, he is kneeling before the corpse of a dog who has a garden fork stuck in him. After getting arrested on suspicion of killing his neighbor’s dog, Wellington, he decides to try to solve the mystery of the murder, much like his hero Sherlock Holmes would have. His investigations lead him to more mysteries and to have to do things he thought were impossible for him to achieve.

It’s a challenging role and Hussmann is highly convincing. He never lapses from his portrayal of a young man with limited ability to express emotions physically. The role is a physically demanding one, requiring him to perform acrobatics, climb up and down boxes, be lifted through the air and never leave the stage except during a 15-minute intermission.

Unlike the demands of most acting roles, Hussmann must be purposely disconnected from the others on stage. He must make choices that are atypical from everything actors are trained to do. That he does it so convincingly makes this production powerful. Hussmann draws the audience into the life and experience of Christopher and makes him highly sympathetic even though he might share little in common with those in the audience who might not share Christopher’s disdain for plays (which are “lies”), for metaphors or for physical and emotional connectionS with others.

While Hussmann is undoubtedly the center of the show and the lynchpin to its success, he is surrounded by other fine actors whose performances contribute to making this a must-see show.

Tory Matsos plays Siobhan, the paraprofessional and mentor at Christopher’s school who is one of the few people who “get” him and is equipped to interact with him in a way that is helpful and validating. And it is worth noting that she is one of the few people in his life who never uses the phrase “I promise” to him. She doesn’t have to—she simply keeps her word to him always.

Matsos gives spark and charisma to Siobhan. She fills her with genuine enthusiasm and finds that magic sweet spot of being able to connect with Christopher while maintaining a physical distance from him.

One of the most heart-breaking roles is performed by Jeremy Koch, Christopher’s father, Ed. He’s a blue-collar Englishman who loves his son dearly but is often ill-equipped to deal with him. He lacks Siobhan’s training and while he’s learned along the way, he struggles. It’s a beautiful portrayal of a father who is well-meaning, but flawed and who fails to provide his son what his son needs even though he really wants to.

Koch captures that desperation while portraying a wide range of emotions from love, concern, anger, frustration and sorrow. While his character continually makes promises he can’t keep, Koch consistently delivers a beautifully moving picture of what it means to be the caretaker of someone whose needs are so demanding.

The rest of the ensemble, who portray characters, crowds, and the means to physically lift and carry Christopher through space, give the show the necessary structure and intensity of sensation that helps the audience understand Christopher’s overload.

Lapp works with choreographer Chelsea Nicole Lapp and Fight Captain Matsos to perfectly choreograph this non-musical show (while there was no singing, there was original music composed by Antonio L. Mitchell II). Every movement is purposeful and depicts the world as Christopher perceives it, not as a neuro-typical person might.

This is a show where the technical aspects aren’t just a nice backdrop to help create the illusion of the story. They are an essential part to making it work. Even the most legendary of acting performances could not tell this story without the technical overlay that infuses every moment. From LED lighting on the floor to projections, to the overwhelming sounds that Christopher hears in his head, every member of the technical team, led by technical director Gunnar Schmidt, is essential.

Justin Thomas, who is in charge of scenic design and projections, built a set that looks deceptively simple. It is anything but. While the touring production of this show had huge spaces to work with, Farmer’s Alley is an intimate stage. Thomas had minimal room on a thrust stage to build a set that could easily become a flat, a classroom, a train station, a garden and even outer space.

In many ways, the snug space of Farmer’s Alley provided more opportunity for Lighting Designer Jason Frink, Master Electrician Carrie Phillips and Sound Designer Alex Tobin. After the curtain call, Hussmann gives the audience a rapid-fire rundown of all the lights and technology used during the show and it is just the tiniest taste of the tools that these technicians used to such great artistic effect all night long.

They are just as much the storytellers as the actors, for this is a story that is told with special effects. They give the audience a taste of what it is like to experience sensory overload—except that while the audience can escape it after two and a half hours, a person with the disorder must live with it all the time, making it far more understandable why they might crawl under a table in a restaurant or retreat to small, confined spaces.

Lapp and his entire cast and crew have put together a stunning production that demonstrates the power of theater and technology in telling untold stories of people who often go unheard and are misunderstood. 

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Week of 9/20/2021

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