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REVIEW: Masterful Acting in a Curious Incident (Yellow Tree Theatre)

Zach Schnitzer in Yellow Tree Theater’s production of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, now playing in Osseo, MN. Photo by Justin Cox.

Yellow Tree Theatre opened its 12th Season last week with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time. Playwright Simon Stephens based his play on Mark Haddon’s novel of the same name. When the show opened on Broadway, it won five Tony Awards in 2015, notably including Best Play. Director Ellen Fenster has crafted an engrossing production of this play for Yellow Tree’s season opener, drawing audiences into this intricate coming-of-age drama about Christopher Boone, an autistic teenager and math genius in England.

The format of the show is a play within a play, the basis of which is a diary/book kept by Christopher. At the top of the show, Christopher is distressed because a neighbor’s dog was impaled with a garden fork. Despite his father’s opposition, Christopher determines to find out who murdered the dog named Wellington. In his “detecting work,” Christopher pushes past his more circumscribed world bubble to get to know his neighbors, including becoming friends with an elderly woman. During his investigation, Christopher learns some difficult truths about his parents. It also leads to Christopher’s first efforts to push beyond his sheltered world when he travels by himself to London by train even though he is fearful of trains and strangers. (Just to complicate things, while coming to terms with new stresses on his life, Christopher is also determined to take and pass his A-Level math tests.)

Christopher (Zach Schnitzer) fights an emotional overload with some help from his mother (Stacia Rice). Photo by Justin Cox.

Zach Schnitzer, who is in virtually every scene, does a masterful job of playing Christopher. His autistic mannerisms are just enough to establish how Christopher appears to the world, without becoming too distracting from the show’s story. The performance dramatically shows audiences Christopher’s viewpoint on his life and the factors which motivate him to go beyond his protective world. He also demonstrates how Christopher’s fears can quickly render him emotionally unavailable, creating upsetting scenes for his parents and others.

Schnitzer’s interactions with a teacher/para named Siobhan (played by Laura Esping) provide much of the show’s humor, as well as some insight as to Christopher’s limitations and strengths. Esping often acts in a narrator role for the play, with her character providing much of the support that encourages Christopher to be more independent and aspire to someday become a scientist.

Corey Mills plays Christopher’s father and Stacia Rice plays his mother. Mills provides a compelling performance of a flawed father who deeply loves his son but engages in disturbing actions that result in Christopher being distrustful and afraid of his father. Rice earnestly portrays a mother who loves her son but is too weak to handle Christopher’s behavioral outbursts.

The remaining cast is an ensemble consisting of Melinda Kordich, Matthew Lolar, Peter Simmons, Alexcia Thompson, and Dylan Ward in various roles. Thompson stood out in her role as an elderly neighbor who becomes friends with Christopher.

Alexcia Thompson in The Curious Incident. Photo by Justin Cox.

Arina Slobodink’s scenic design of blocks in the center creates a functional and flexible set that allows it to serve as a backyard, a house, a train, etc. One drawback, however, is that the blocks force most of the action to go around them and keeps much of the movement away from center stage.

As part of the play, the audience is warned that lights and sounds in certain scenes to dramatize how Christopher sees the world may be overstimulating. However, the actual lights and sounds seemed rather mild when they did occur. That is a minor flaw, given that Schnitzer’s riveting performance was more than sufficient to portray Christopher’s world to the audience.

Christopher’s father (Corey Mills, right) tries to reach an accommodation with Christopher (Zach Schnitzer). Photo by Justin Cox.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time plays at Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo, MN through October 13.

Bev Wolfe