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Warren Gerds/Critic at Large: Review: ‘The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time’ soars in Menasha

Critic At Large

University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Fox Cities Campus Theatre

Program cover.

MENASHA, Wis. (WFRV)

The topic is particularly hardball.

The presentation is brilliant.

Theater may be words and speech, but sometimes theater shifts to an elevated level.

Such is the case with the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Fox Cities Campus Theatre presentation of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.”

The material and the performance space are fused in special ways.

The story is about Christopher. Age 15. English. Cannot stand to be touched. Dislikes the color yellow. And brown. “I always tell the truth,” he says; and does. Is of a strong will. Attends a school for students with special needs; one student eats everything; EVERYTHING. Christopher is told his mother is ill, then has died. Christopher and his father are on their own.

The play starts with Christopher standing in view of a dog that has been stabbed dead with a pitchfork.

The message is clear to the audience: There will be harshness in this play.

Christopher becomes obsessed with pursuing the mystery of who killed the neighbor woman’s dog. But first, he strikes the policeman who touched him during questioning.

Narrating this play by Simon Stephens from a novel by Mark Haddon is Christopher’s teacher, who is reading from a book that becomes a play that Christopher wrote. Layers are many in the basic setup.

And then there is this production, which takes the audience to an experience unique in theater in this region.

That starts with Braden Cooper, who is wired into the dynamics of the challenged and challenging Christopher. It continues in a cast that is a blend of student and professional actors performing in special ways devised by astute director Susan Rabideau and design whiz Frank Tower.

“Theater in the round” is a common term when an audience encircles a stage. This time, “theater in the square” is befitting. The stage in the black box Lucia Baehman Theatre is square, and the audience sits on the four sides.

The stage is raised a foot above the main floor. On the outside areas of the stage surface, a square pattern is laid out – 17 solid squares by 17 squares with the final two being halves. In the middle of one edge is a rectangle raised above the stage; perhaps beneath is the mechanism for driving a central circle that rotates. Essentially, the stage is a square with a dot in the middle.

Before action starts, lighting plays on the stage surface. Many triangles are seen, and their overlay creates complex jumbly geometry that’s akin to Christopher’s mind and an important event that happens in the play. Much, much thought has gone into this production.

In the course of action, lighting becomes a kind of ballet with the actors. Actors are lighted in different spots. Sometimes lighting on the floor becomes a room in which the actors will play out a scene.

Sometimes the rotation of the circle represents movement to a change of place. Sometimes the whirl seems to represent Christopher’s mind.

Scene in the play with a meeting between Alexis Bestol and Braden Cooper. (Company photo)

Amid the mechanics and lighting, this cast becomes an amalgam of voice and body. Players sometimes move as if a dance ensemble. Statements in the play become a kind of impressionistic dance. Christopher is swept up on the hands of others and lifted and turned and transported. His mother, enjoying a day on the beach, dives into the water – all in the hands of others. Yes, much, much thought has gone into this production.

The players, the creators and their support seem to be of one mind. This production has a wholeness to it.

Key in the complexities are James Fairchild as the conflicted father with handful of a son to deal with, Ericka Wade as Christopher’s kindly teacher (and narrator) and Laura Frelich as Christopher’s mother.

The acting is excellent all around – a concerned neighbor woman (Miki Wise), the snarly neighbor with the dead dog (Cameo England), the authoritative policeman (Jon Bye), the railroad security guy suddenly stuck with the loose wheel called Christopher (Tony Montalvo), the not-so-informative woman and Punk Girl (Alexis Bestol) and a man beset by a girlfriend’s kid who few can handle (Alex Frantz).

Also of note:

+ In Act I, Christopher is shown in a sequence of scenes building a model railroad layout that stretches from one edge of the stage to another. In the story, Christopher will take a rail journey. At the end of the act, the layout is complete and action ends, save for the locomotive on the track that moves as Christopher’s journey begins… and is completed in Act II.

+ I have been writing lately about the sound of silence in theater – how audiences in this region have become increasingly less apt to automatically applaud. This production is another example. At the end of Act I, there was no applause at Friday night’s performance, and that suited the tone of the seriousness of the play.

+ This is the 10-year anniversary of the Communications Arts Center complex, the importance of which Susan Rabideau writes about in her director’s notes. This production represents the realization of one of the goals envisioned in creating the space that became the Lucia Baehman Theatre.

+ An “encore” scene with the outstanding Braden Cooper caps the experience of inspired originality in play writing (the author) and play making (the campus team).

***

Creative: Playwright – Simon Stephens, based on the novel by Mark Haddon; director – Susan Rabideau; stage manager – Frank Tower; assistant stage manager – Madison Hoppe; costume designer – John R. LaPrairie; assistant costume designer – Hannah Nolte; props – Leola Klemp; light designer – Andrew Schmitz; turn table design – Frank Tower

Cast:

Rodger/Voice 2 – Alex Frantz

Punk Girl/Voice 5 – Alexis Bestol

Christopher – Braden Cooper

Mrs. Shears/Voice 1 – Cameo England

Siobhan – Ericka Wade

Ed – James Fairchild

Policeman/Voice 3 – Jon Bye

Judy – Laura Frelich

Mrs. Alexander/Voice 6 – Miki Wise

Reverend Peters/Voice 4 – Tony Montalvo

Running time: Two hours, 5 minutes

Remaining performance: 1 p.m. Nov. 23

Info: https://uwosh.universitytickets.com/w/default.aspx?cid=169

***

NEXT: “Shrek The Musical,” Feb. 20-22, 27-29.

THE VENUE: Lucia Baehman Theatre is a 125-seat, rectangular space in the University of Wisconsin-Oshkosh, Fox Cities Campus (name change as of July 12, 2019) Communication Arts Center. Lined by black stage curtains on each wall, the space serves as a black-box theater. There are no adornments, and the stage and space are adaptable to whatever a production needs. The adjacent lobby is spacious and includes a ticket office, snack service area, restrooms and spaces for art and photo displays. The center opened in 2009.

THE PEOPLE: Lucia Baehman and her husband, Stan, are longtime supporters of theater in the Fox River Valley.

Copyright 2019 Nexstar Broadcasting, Inc. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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