At the beginning of Mark Collmer’s production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time,” a ghastly murder has taken place and it appears the culprit is right in the front of us. At first glimpse, Christopher (played by Molly Oberg, in an astonishing performance) sure looks like the individual who impaled a poor dog to death outside its owner’s home. The manner in which this is portrayed is unusual: the dog is represented as a silhouette on stage. However, the emotion of the scene is raw and riveting. It sets a precedent, as what proceeds is wildly stylish and often surreal, but the presentation never eclipses the humanity of the piece.
“The Curious Incident…” is dream-like and absorbing but all the considerable visual dazzle on display would be lost without this great cast, who find the emotional truths and complexities of their recognizably human characters.
While this is an ensemble piece, the play is carried by a quirky, moving performance by Oberg, who clearly understands this character. Christopher has a unique manner and perspective on life, a quality that Oberg brings forward with compassion and honesty. The character is sometimes hard to connect with, but Oberg’s work kept me fascinated.
Noel Overbay is terrific as Christopher’s mother. During the. first act, she plays moments that spring from Christopher’s recollections; Overbay brings such feeling to these little slivers of memory. One of the play’s emotional centers comes from Megan Caccomo’s great performance as Christopher’s patient and encouraging mentor from school.
Another great turn that merits special mention is Jussara Oliveira as Mrs. Shears; while the introductory scenes demonstrate the play’s stylized approach and mute the violence of the initial killing, Oliveira’s fierce performance sets the tone and allows the audience to feel (rather than explicitly see) the shattering impact of the slaying. I also loved Daniel Downs’ nuanced turn as Roger, as the actor allows us to see the longing and sadness within his buffoonish character.
The father/son relationship is clearly defined and movingly conveyed by Oberg and Scott McLelland (the actor made me love this character, even when his actions are maddening and disappointing). The entire cast sports crisp, consistent and understated accents.
Simon Stephen’s script invites a visual richness that Collmer has clearly seized upon. Collmer skillfully directs the dynamic material, maximizing the visual possibilities of every scene and guiding his actors to immerse themselves with the challenging material. The set design by Collmer and Caro Walker is a thing to behold, as various blocks, shapes and spaces stand in for a wide range of settings.
“The Curious incident…” is gentler but bears similarities to Anthony Schaffer’s “Equus,” in that they’re both set in England, center on a horrible crime against an animal and focus on a young man whose mind carries dark secrets and untapped brilliance. There’s also the manner in which the play looks and is presented, as Schaffer’s famously had actors in wire frame helmets portraying horses and minimalist sets. Here, the whole stage is a grid, with imagery of the cosmos and various settings projected, in order to convey how Christopher is comprehending and reacting to the world around him. It makes for a virtuoso rendering of remarkable material.
Christopher is often onstage with actors who are silent, dressed in white and masked: these characters act as reflections of his mindset and a quasi-Greek chorus. It’s a brilliant touch, giving the actors performing silently the chance to play some light comedy and still add depth to searing dramatic moments. There’s also a clever nod to (of all things) the video game “Tetris,” as the production design and the moving of the onstage set pieces reflect the block and grid look of the iconic game.
The second act takes the protagonist on a physical journey that is made exciting and suspenseful by persuasive staging and choreography. I haven’t read the 2003 Mark Haddon novel upon which the play is based and never found any of this predictable or easy to get ahead of. In fact, I was delighted and amazed that the show makes good on a last-minute promise to explain a pivotal math equation. There are a few moments that gently tap against the fourth wall, though “The Curious Incident…” is never smug or unpleasant. As an unorthodox mystery, it’s a shocking and impressive work that defies description and easy categorization.
Aside from the performances and playful staging, my favorite thing about it is how this experience is definitively theatrical. A movie adaptation may come along, but the approach would have to be entirely different, literal and diluted. Seeing how the ProArts Theater makes this come alive on stage is to witness something of a miracle. There’s nothing else like it around for miles, an experience only theater can provide.
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time is playing until January 26th at the ProArts Playhouse at Azeka Marketplace (next to Taco Bell). Tickets are available at proartsmaui.com and by calling 808-463-6550.