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‘Curious Incident’ sparks magic

Exploring a constantly changing state of mind

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L-R: Maria Elena Ramirez as Siobhan, Gene Gillette as Ed (rear) and Adam Langdon as Christopher Boone in the touring production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”. (Photo by ©2016 Joan Marcus)

Based on its title alone, you might assume that “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” is a detective story. You would necessarily not be wrong.

Indeed, within the first few pages of Mark Haddon’s bestselling novel, upon which this multiple Olivier and Tony Award-winning play is based, its 15-year-old narrator, Christopher (who says he never lies), states quite plainly that it is a detective story.

It may not be a lie, but it’s not quite the whole truth, either. For Christopher is himself the detective, and the case he sets out to solve will only lead him into a mystery he finds much more perplexing, because he faces challenges most of us do not.

Although his condition is never specifically stated, he exhibits the behavioral and cognitive quirks of someone on the autism spectrum, with symptoms most closely resembling Asperger’s Syndrome. Although he is highly intelligent — enamored with math, equipped with an encyclopedic array of knowledge, and adept at using logic to solve complex problems — he is at a loss when it comes to human connection. Unable to relate through empathy or to read non-verbal signals, he finds himself continually confused and mistrustful of others, and their contradictory behavior and statements seem an existential threat to him.

To put it simply, he is completely bewildered by the world of human beings.

The brilliance of “Curious Incident” in its original book form was that it managed to convey the unique perspective of this character, an outsider to the “normal” world which most of us take for granted, by communicating in his voice and allowing us to be inside his experience of that world – one which confuses and terrifies him with its deception and inconsistency.  In adapting it for the stage, playwright Simon Stephens was faced with the challenge of recreating this effect in a different way, and the method he chose – to turn Christopher’s story into a sort of multi-layered puzzle box presented as a play-within-a-play – succeeds in the highest degree.

Played out on Bunny Christie’s innovative, theatrical set, Stephens’ smartly funny script takes us through a journey that begins as Christopher finds a neighbor’s dog murdered in a garden and decides, against his father’s wishes, to find out who killed it.

Elaborate animated projections (created by Finn Ross) illustrate the young protagonist’s thought processes, with some help from a spritely techno music accompaniment (by Adrian Sutton); and the clever use of primary colors in the lighting (Paul Constable) and costumes (Bunny Christie) help to organize things into the kind of clear patterns that help him make sense of the world.

An ensemble of players, most stepping in and out of multiple roles, helps him to act out his story while his para-professional mentor, Siobhan, guides him through the confusing task of navigating the world.  They create and inhabit every situation in which Christopher finds himself, whether an amusing fact-finding expedition through his neighborhood or the terrifying London Underground, with clear specificity and theatrical panache.

Lastly, the whole package is expertly staged by Marianne Elliott, earning her Best Director in both London and New York; she takes all the swirling threads of Christopher’s world and arranges them into a visually arresting and engrossing multi-media game, in which the audience is invited not only to investigate the titular mystery (which is really not difficult, after all, for those of us not facing the same perceptual obstacles as Christopher), but to root for this young man as he struggles to comprehend the deeper enigmas in his own life story.

Adam Langdon delivers an outstanding performance.  His Christopher is mesmerizing; capturing the physical and vocal peculiarities of the character as he conveys a full spectrum of emotional response, from terror to exuberance (sometimes within a heartbeat), he carries the piece squarely on his young shoulders with clarity and consistency and never lets it slip for a moment.

Maria Elena Ramirez, whose Siobhan exudes patience and compassion yet never becomes cloying, delivers an exceptional performance. Gene Gillette and Felicity Jones Latta negotiate subtle complexity with their respective portrayals of Christopher’s father and mother, whose heartbreakingly human drama lies at the core of the “incident.”

It’s that familiar humanity that makes “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” so much more than just a clever and creative exercise in stagecraft.  For underneath all the entertaining and intricately plotted fun is a sense of melancholy, a longing.  Through Christopher we can recognize our own frustration with the sometimes seemingly insurmountable obstacles we face in connecting to each other; and when he retreats into the comfortable security of facts and numbers, with their reliable constancy and their inability to present themselves as anything other than what they are, who among us cannot relate?  We all need a “safe space,” after all.

However, retreat is not the answer, and Christopher knows it.  His “detective story” ultimately teaches us that the only way to solve a problem is to make an effort, no matter how impossible it may seem to us.  To connect, we must communicate, and if Christopher can learn to do it, with the difficulties he faces, what excuse do any of us have?

In the end, “Curious Incident” is not a play about broken connection, but a play about finding ways to repair it.  Life-affirming, profound, and joyful, it’s a triumph of theatrical imagination and an experience not to be missed.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time
Aug 2 – Sept. 10
Ahmanson Theatre
135 N. Grand Ave.

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Theater

Ahmanson returns to live performance with ‘Christmas Carol’

Bradley Whitford in ‘Christmas Carol’ at the Ahmanson is a fresh perspective and new approach to a time-worn classic

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Bradley Whitford in ‘Christmas Carol.’ Photo courtesy of the Ahmanson Theatre at the Los Angeles Music Center

When Charles Dickens wrote “A Christmas Carol” in 1843, he was inspired as much by a need to make money as he was a love for the holidays. His latest novel was being published in serial form, but sales were disappointing, so he hit upon the idea of a novella capitalizing on the seasonal fervor of readers to ensure himself a nice boost in income. It was a hit, and most of Western culture is still embracing the traditions immortalized within it, 178 years later.

Given the intent of its original author to use the story as a cash cow – something he would continue to do with live readings of the manuscript at nearly 200 public performances over the remaining course of his life – it seems fitting, or at least unsurprising, that “A Christmas Carol” has continued to be reinterpreted, restructured, remounted, re-invented, and recycled across every conceivable medium over the years. This year, Angelenos are getting the opportunity to see one of the most lauded of its recent incarnations, which has arrived at the Ahmanson to celebrate not only the Christmas season, but also the return to live performances after more than a year-and-a-half of shutdowns.

Playwright Jack Thorne – who rose to international acclaim for writing “Harry Potter and the Cursed Child” – adapted the Dickens novella in 2017, for London’s Old Vic Theatre. It proved so successful that it has returned for an encore each subsequent year (including virtually, during the pandemic), and was mounted on Broadway in 2019 for a production that, despite its run being cut short by COVID-forced closure, snagged Tony Awards for the design of its lights, sets, costumes, and sound, as well as for its original score. It’s this version that’s now playing on the Ahmanson stage, a briskly paced, high-energy enactment of the Christmas classic that pares Dickens’ story down to its most essential elements while leaning heavily into the “magic of the theatre” to evoke the necessary sense of wonder. Thanks to those Tony-winning technical designs, it succeeds unequivocally in achieving the latter – but how well it succeeds in delivering “A Christmas Carol” to audiences eager for the comforting familiarity of a well-loved traditional experience is not quite so clear-cut.

In Thorne’s vision of the classic tale, we are transported to early Victorian London via a somewhat minimalistic scenic design, made up mostly of old-fashioned lamps – piled below as well as strung above, in a dazzling and immersive sea of light that extends out well above the audience – and a few modular components (all branded “Scrooge and Marley”) that can be variously assembled to suggest different locations, with a central playing area delineated in a square by four rectangular archways, which rise and lower as needed to suggest structures.. Abstract, cold, and industrial as this setting might sound, it is given ample warmth not just by the amber glow of the lighting, but by the music (most of which is played and sung live onstage) which accompanies the action throughout. Calling to mind, perhaps, an encampment in some urban junk yard where itinerant souls have gathered to share some holiday cheer despite their hardships, it provides a surprisingly effective environment for a tale which, like all of Dickens’ work, runs deep with a humanitarian undercurrent of social consciousness.

Within this evocative space, the players endeavor to tell the story of miserly old Ebenezer Scrooge and his supernaturally facilitated redemption, banding together to recite the familiar words of Dickens’ narration in a style that falls somewhere between Greek Chorus and Carnival Busker. Individuals step out from this group to assume particular roles – Fezziwig, Bob Cratchit and the Ghosts, for instance – but Scrooge himself (Bradley Whitford, in a characteristically audacious performance) is set up from the beginning as a man apart, and for most of what transpires during the play’s short running time, he essentially serves as a foil for the rest of the ensemble – and the old-fashioned but dazzling theatrical trickery they employ as an aid – as they barrel through the iconic narrative and lead him against his will to his own salvation. It’s a boisterous ride, an inherently performative rendition that takes for granted we already know the story by heart and elides its way past most of the expository details so it can get to the key points faster and spend more time lingering there.

In description, perhaps, the show’s effect may seem like a bullet-pointed list, but in reality it plays out like a ceremonial presentation – and aptly so, given that its source material has become woven into the fabric of one of the cornerstone events of the Christian calendar. In the orchestrated blend of language and movement that take us through the paces of Scrooge’s road to transformation, the beloved high points – the introductions of the ghosts, the visits with nephew Fred, and of course the heart-tugging saga of Tiny Tim – become scenes for contemplation, like a secular version of the Stations of the Cross; and within that heightened sense of import, Thorne’s script takes the opportunity to expand upon some of Dickens’ time-honored storytelling with a few flourishes dictated by a decidedly modern perspective.

In this “Christmas Carol,” the Cratchit family drama that usually occupies so much of our attention takes a back seat to unpacking the history of trauma that turned Young Ebenezer into Old Scrooge in the first place. Taking leaps with ideas merely suggested in the story’s original text, Thorne gives us harrowing insight into the old man’s upbringing, reveals the ahead-of-its-time “wokeness” of Fezziwig’s worldview, and allows for some healing and closure in the thwarted love story with abandoned fiancée Belle. He also introduces moments of particularly harsh reality – like letting us see the death of Tiny Tim instead of merely learning about it after the fact – that take us by surprise and thereby forces us to confront them more directly than in Dickens’ kinder, gentler original; finally, he diverges from tradition in his depiction of the ghosts (particularly the last one) and gives them all a more personal relationship to Scrooge than is suggested in the original.

All of this makes for stimulating theater, and Thorne, along with the entire creative team, deserve kudos for bringing a fresh perspective and new approach to a time-worn classic. But the problem with new approaches is that, by changing focus, they also change effect, and theatre-goers hoping for the kind of familiar, comforting holiday experience they normally expect from “A Christmas Carol” may well find this one jarringly UN-familiar. That’s not a bad thing, by any means, but when your heart is set for figgy pudding, anything else is bound to be a disappointment.

With that in mind, it’s safe to say that this new production is absolutely worth seeing, for its creativity, its energy, and its willingness to shed some fresh light on some corners that have always remained dark in the past. It just might not be the Dickens you were looking for, and if you can manage that expectation, you’re likely to have a festive time, indeed.

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Broadway gathers to honor Sondheim in Times Square

They were gathered to pay homage to legendary Tony, Academy Award, and Grammy Award-winning composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim

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Broadway gathers to honor Stephen Sondheim (Screenshot via YouTube)

NEW YORK – Light snow flurries swirled around the stars of theatre and stage of New York City’s ‘Great White Way’ as they gathered Sunday in Times Square- members of every Broadway company assembled singing in a powerful chorus “Sunday,” the powerfully emotional act one finale to “Sunday in the Park with George.”

They were gathered to pay homage to legendary Tony, Academy Award, and Grammy Award-winning composer and lyricist Stephen Sondheim. That piece being performed had garnered Sondheim a Pulitzer Prize for Drama in 1985.

Broadway’s best were joined by Lin-Manuel Miranda, Sara Bareilles, Josh Groban, Kathryn Gallagher and Lauren Patton at ‘Sunday’ Performance in Times Square.

The man who was heralded as Broadway and theater’s most revered and influential composer-lyricist of the last half of the 20th century died at 91 Friday at his home in Roxbury, Connecticut.

“This felt like church,” Bareilles told Variety after the performance on Sunday. “In his remembrance, we did what theater does best. We sang and raised our voices and came together in community.” 

Variety also noted that during the celebration, Miranda offered a sermon of sorts. Foregoing a speech, he opened Sondheim’s “Look I Made A Hat,” an annotated anthology of the composer’s lyrics, and read from a few passages before the crowd.

“Sunday” from Sunday in the Park with George memorial for Stephen Sondheim

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Theater

Words never fail in MacIvor double bill by Open Fist Theatre

The playwright offers a contemplation of life and death, experience & memory, honesty & deceit, that make up human existence

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Schuyler Mastain, David Shofner, and Scott Roberts in THE SOLDIER DREAMS (Photo Credit: Frank Ishman)

LOS ANGELES – There has long been debate among theatrical scholars about whether going to a play has been traditionally considered an auditory or a visual experience.

The argument goes that, before the advent of modern technology which enabled cinema and other forms of filmed entertainment, the theatre was a place where sound was the primary vehicle by which an audience’s imagination could be transported out of the here and now, and that visual elements such as costumes, props, or mechanical stagecraft were secondary factors meant to reinforce and enhance the effect; for evidence of this, many point to Shakespeare, who in “Hamlet” had his lead character say “we’ll hear a play” (a phrase which was subsequently long-used preferentially by many theatre-goers in his homeland) and whose works are still renowned five-and-a-half centuries later for their masterful use of language to accomplish… well, pretty much everything required, from setting the scene and telling the story to exploring the deepest nooks and crannies of the human psyche.

Though the whole question might seem a bit pedantic in today’s world, it certainly touches on a major difference between the way we experience live theatre and the way we experience a film or television show, one which hinges on the main route these related-but-separate art forms take – through the ears or through the eyes – in transmitting information to the human brain. And if you want a good example of what a difference that difference makes, you couldn’t find a much better illustration than the plays of Candadian wordsmith Daniel MacIvor – two of which are currently being performed by the Open Fist Theatre Company at Atwater Village Theatre.

MacIvor, who is known also as a filmmaker and actor, garnered acclaim in the 1980s and 1990s for a series of plays, crafted in a minimalist style and reliant on an intricately constructed tapestry of words to convey situation, narrative, and intent. Standard conceits of theatrical storytelling, such as a linear flow or the assumption of a fourth wall, are often jettisoned in these works, which invite comparisons to absurdists like Beckett and Pinter and challenge audiences to connect the dots as they go in order to decipher meaning. 

Two of these pieces, both directed with a confident hand by Open Fist’s associate artistic director Amanda Weir, are paired by Open Fist into a brisk and engrossing double bill which leans hard into the award-winning playwright’s unique, meta-theatrical approach to maximum advantage.

The shorter of the two works, “Never Swim Alone,” is the more directly abstract. Taking place on stage that is bare save for a lifeguard stand and two chairs, it presents a ruthless competition of one-upmanship between two men, Frank and Bill (Bryan Bertone and Dylan Maddalena), who demonstrate an escalating series of scenarios under the watchful eye of “The Referee” (Emma Bruno) – a young woman with a secret connection to the boys these men used to be. Slyly witty and unexpectedly suspenseful, it examines the competitive machismo hidden beneath the slick and stylish suits of these two “Type A” businessmen with a dark and scathing sense of humor, as it slowly draws a connection between their never-ending battle for supremacy and the deep trauma of a shared childhood experience.

Originally produced in 1991, the roughly 30-minute exercise taps into the rich vein of toxic masculinity in order to make its points about the deep-seated fears and insecurities that drive so much of what our culture has long accepted as “typical” male behavior, with the two men vying for “points” against each other – awarded, of course, by the female referee, who holds absolute and irrefutable power in the game despite the clear lack of regard with which each of the participants reveals themselves to hold women in general.

It’s unapologetically clever and disarmingly comedic, reveling in its theatricality and its tactics as it explores the men’s rivalry and breaks each confrontation down into the all-too-familiar clichés in which they are mired. The elegant simplicity of its construction, which distills a far-reaching and deep-rooted phenomenon into clear and concise shapshots of social dysfunction, feels as effective today as it surely did over two decades ago.

From a 2021 perspective, however, the subject matter no longer seems as fresh. In the last few years (especially since the “Me Too” movement), the topic of bad male behavior has been rehearsed so frequently, and in so many different and brilliant ways, that many audiences may find themselves getting ahead of the play’s revelations before they fully land, and the conceit which ties the whole thing together – which we’ll not reveal here – may ultimately strike some viewers as too pat an explanation for what makes these men (and presumably, somehow by extension, all of them) tick.

Nevertheless, MacIvor’s wordplay never fails to be crisp and exciting as it trips from the talented tongues of the players (especially the charismatic Bertone and the sublimely expressive Maddalena, who take on the lion’s share of the work), and those who enjoy watching skillful actors engaged in an exercise of their craft are bound to find the pleasures of doing so more than enough to make up for the familiarity of the themes being explored.

More satisfying from a narrative standpoint, and more engaging on an emotional level, is “The Soldier Dreams,” which MacIvor – who is gay – wrote in 1998 as a response to the AIDS crisis. Again, the setting is sparse, suggesting an empty nightclub with a single bed, occupied by an ailing man, facing upstage in the center.

The man is David (David Shofner), who is in the process of dying as his lover Richard (Conor Lane) and dysfunctional family spar with each other over his comatose form, each clinging to their own perceived special relationship with him and examining their memories to find an answer to the lingering mysteries about his life. Meanwhile, David himself is revisiting a secret memory, from years before, involving a one-night stand with a German student (Schuyler Mastain) that may or may not have led to something more important to him than any of the people standing around his soon-to-be deathbed.

Here, the same linguistic tricks used by MacIvor to form the intellectual exercise of “Swim” are employed to illuminate the web of human relationships at the center of a bittersweet story; as a result, they strike us with deeper resonance and more urgency than in the other piece.

Through the myriad pathways of language, the playwright offers a contemplation of life and death, experience and memory, honesty and deceit, and a host of other dualities that make up human existence. There’s sharp humor and cutting observation along the way, along with a fair amount of painful and hard-to-watch bitterness, but it’s all tempered with compassion and the three-dimensional layers revealed by each character as we go, and in the end, we are left in a place of hope – or, at least, of acceptance. And making it all come together, a talented cast succeeds in the essential task of breathing life into MacIvor’s words, with Shofner, Lane, and Mastain as standouts among a solid and capable ensemble.

The two complementary plays continue their run at Atwater Village Theatre through December 12. Check the Open Fist website for performance dates and times.

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