Conventional wisdom says that plays cannot make money these days touring the United States. But the National Theatre of Great Britain does not listen to conventional wisdom.
Two seasons ago, it had astonishing artistic and commercial success on the road with War Horse, its five-time Tony Award-winning World War I drama about a boy and his equine pal. Now theatrical lightning is striking again with The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, also a five-time Tony winner. It concerns the harrowing adventures of Christopher Boone, an autistic British teen with an affinity for mathematics and amateur sleuthing. The tour plays this week at West Palm Beach’s Kravis Center, through Sunday.
Beyond acclaim, success and source material deemed impossible to adapt for the stage, what the two productions have in common is director Marianne Elliott, a woman known for embracing challenge.
“When she takes on a project like this, which people say cannot be done, that lights a flame in her and her creative team and they prove everyone wrong,” says the National Theatre’s associate producer Tim Levy, whose primary responsibility is identifying properties to bring to America. “I do think this show, in very, very different ways and using different stagecraft, she turned something that people said could only be in the novel form into something that they just love on the stage.”
It did not help that Mark Haddon’s best-selling novel takes place inside Christopher’s head, but adaptor Simon Stephens was too enamored of the book to let that stop him. He took an early draft to his director friend Elliott, who began envisioning how this curious novel could come alive onstage.
War Horse and The Curious Incident could not be more different – as novels or as stage works. Yet Levy notes that they do have things in common. “They’re both stories of a central protagonist who’s a young male character going on an extraordinary journey. And both of them, in their own way, are incredibly brave,” he notes. “Albert was fighting his way through the horrors of the First World War, but for Christopher Boone, the challenge of discovering the truth about his family was his own battle, that was enormous to him.”
Those truths concern the violent death of a neighbor’s dog, killed with a pitchfork. Christopher is the first person to discover the dog’s dead body, so – despite his father’s adamant objection – the teen decides to track down the perpetrator.
Theatergoers are invited to join him in his quest. “One of the things I love about ‘Curious’ is that you watch the play and in many ways the audience feels like they are Christopher,” says Levy. “Marianne and her team have put us so inside his brain, and his heart as well, that however you see the world or the challenges that we all have, it feels as though Christopher is kind of an Everyman figure.”
Before Stephens approached him about adapting the novel, Haddon had turned down dozens of such requests. Once he gave Stephens the go-ahead, Haddon remained enormously supportive. “Incredibly trusting,” says Levy. “It’s been great to see how happy he has been with the finished product. That’s always the fear of an adaptation, that the original author won’t feel that it honors his work. Simon’s play absolutely does.”
As remarkable as the script is the physical production of The Curious Incident, created by a team of unconventional designers that Elliot assembled and guided. According to Levy, the contributions of scenic designer Bunny Christie and video projections designer Finn Ross are as integral to the play’s success as South Africa’s Handspring Puppet Company was to War Horse.
“What Bunny and Finn came up with feels pretty mind-blowing about what you can do in the theater. One of the things that’s so amazing about the design is it’s quite hard to say where the set design ends and the projection design begins,” Levy feels. “And likewise with the lighting design (by Paule Constable). They’re all so enmeshed in the world of the storytelling. They didn’t just design a show, I feel like they all wanted to get inside Christopher’s head. The musical score of ‘Curious’ is actually designed around the relationship of prime numbers, because Adrian (Sutton) thought that was something that Christopher would love.”
From the National’s intimate Cottesloe Theater to London’s West End to Broadway to the large-scale auditoriums of America’s performing arts centers, Elliott and her team kept tweaking and improving the show.
In fact, “There are moments in the U.S. tour of ‘Curious’ that are indeed brand-new, because Bunny and Finn and Paule and others have thought, ‘Wait a minute, this would be a really exciting new way to do this.’ So audiences around the country are getting something I hope as wonderful as the production we created on Broadway and in the West End, and in some cases better.”
So Tim, what is it about The Curious Incident that has such powerful appeal to theatergoers? “I think they are fascinated and fall in love with the character of Christopher Boone,” he reponds. “He’s such a wonderful fictional character that you just long to succeed and I think you fall in love with the stagecraft. In many ways, like ‘War Horse,’ there really has been nothing like this. So being able to go to the theater and be surprised with what you can do in that room when the lights go out is what has been most magical to audiences.
“And it’s a story about parents and children, as universal a theme as you can get,” he adds. “I love the underlying message of the show, that everything is possible. If you work hard, you can overcome any obstacles and succeed. And I feel that’s what Christopher does.”
Even more importantly, The Curious Incident is a unique experience. “Come to ‘The Curious Incident’ if you want to see a theater production that is unlike anything you’ve ever seen,” sys Levy. “That has heart and beauty, but also a stagecraft that is as staggering as any musical you will have seen. And an emotional wallop that leaves you moved and cheering.”
THE CURIOUS INCIDENT OF THE DOG IN THE NIGHT-TIME, Kravis Center Dreyfoos Hall, 701 Okeechobee Blvd., West Palm Beach. Through Sunday. $27 and up. 561-832-7469.