"The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-Time" is based on British author Mark Haddon's bestselling 2003 book of the same name. The company is staging Simon Stephens' 2012 adaptation of the book.
The "incident" of the title refers to the killing of a neighbor's dog. Christopher, a character who readers assume to be autistic or neurodivergent, initially falls under suspicion, aims to identify the true killer of the dog, but his investigations uncover much more than he was expecting, eventually spurring him to travel about 70 miles from his home in Swindon to London on a difficult but eye-opening trip.
Los Altos Stage Company Executive Artistic Director Gary Landis saw the play on Broadway about eight years ago.
"I was really fascinated by the show — both the presentation and the topic. And I know a lot of people that we've worked with are really fans of the book. The (stage) rights had become available just before the pandemic and we were considering it," he said of what inspired the company to stage the show. Landis is directing the production.
"The stage company, especially our education program, has been working with a broad range of neurodivergent students. And there are a number of neurodivergent self-identifying artists within the community. So we thought, the popularity of the novel, the popularity of the show, and also the interest within local arts community around engaging and telling stories that are highlighting the neurodivergent community was something that we should pursue," Landis said, noting that the cast and crew includes four artists who are neurodivergent.
Whereas Christopher serves as the first-person narrator for the novel, Stephens' stage adaptation gives the story a play-within-a-play structure, presented as if one of Christopher's teachers is reading from his writings. Six members of the 10-person cast portray numerous characters that Christopher encounters on his journey.
The play's structure is unusually episodic, Landis said, with around 50 small scenes, some of them very short.
"When you're switching locations and places basically within seconds, you're not using the scenery to transform, you're using the actors in the space to transform and keep the story moving, so that those aspects on a production level are challenging," Landis said.
The production also portrays Christopher's heightened sensory sensitivity through a combination of staging and effects created using projections.
"A number of things that he talks about in the show have to do with seeing and hearing everything and the challenges that are presented when you see and hear everything all at the same time. So really, as Christopher journeys out from his home, into the broader community and makes his journey to London, he is confronted with a kind of sensory overload, both in the sights and sounds and people moving all around him," Landis said.
Haddon has said that he did not research autism or specifically Asperger's before writing the book and that he based the character of Christopher on several different people he knew. The author does not name a specific disability in the book itself — Christopher describes himself as "a mathematician with some behavioural difficulties" — but the book jacket copy on early editions stated that Christopher has Asperger's syndrome, something that Haddon later said that he regretted.
"Labels say nothing about a person. They say only how the rest of us categorise that person. Good literature is always about peeling labels off. and treating real people with dignity is always about peeling the labels off. A diagnosis may lead to practical help. But genuinely understanding another human being involves talking and listening to them and finding out what makes them an individual, not what makes them part of a group," Haddon said in a 2009 blog post explaining why he turns down frequent invitations to speak about autism.
The book and stage adaptation have sparked some debate over Christopher's characterization, which includes traits stereotypically ascribed to autism, such as unusual aptitude for math, a lack of empathy and a propensity for violence, that raise concerns over further stigmatizing autistic people.
As Landis noted, there is an ongoing, evolving conversation in the performing arts that raises questions about representation, about how neurodivergent people are portrayed and who should portray them.
"When we've been talking about it, exploring and confronted with when a person connected the project brought up the point that if you've met one autistic or neurodivergent person, you've just met one autistic or neurodivergent person — applying one's experience to another may not give you insight into another," Landis said.
Ultimately, Christopher's story is unique to him as a character, beginning with the unsettling curious incident, but leading him to a greater understanding of his family and more importantly, himself.
"Not to give too much away, but it's also a kind of hopeful kind of journey for Christopher from being relatively kind of insular and protected to asserting himself in the broader community and going on a journey that leads him to believe that the end that anything is possible for him," Landis said.
Los Altos Stage Company presents "The Curious Incident of the Dog in Night-Time," Sept. 9-Oct. 2 at the Bus Barn Theater, 97 Hillview, Los Altos. Tickets are $20-$40. For more information, call 650.941.0551 or visit losaltosstage.org.
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