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Teenager explores a new world in Tony-winning 'Curious Incident' at FST

The Herald-Tribune - 1/20/2019

Jan. 20--The more director Richard Hopkins works on his production of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time" at Florida Studio Theatre, the more he appreciates the strength of Simon Stephens' Tony Award-winning stage adaptation of a best-selling 2003 novel by Mark Haddon.

The story is about a boy named Christopher Boone, a budding mathematician who is on the autism spectrum and sees the world in a different way than those around him. He begins investigating the death of a neighbor's dog, and the mystery launches him on a journey through time and memories, to unexplored and potentially dangerous places. Along the way, he discovers an inner strength as he keeps trying to process new information that confronts him.

"Reading the book makes you realize how brilliant the adaptation is. It's shocking how good it is. The play is fragmented, and so is the book. It jumps all over the place," Hopkins said. The play's short scenes require the director to work on the arc of each one and ensure that it relates to the beginning of the next one.

The play, which won the 2015 Tony Award for best play after earning praise at the National Theatre in London, also defies time and tradition.

"This is story theater on steroids for grownups," Hopkins said. "The first time I read the play, it reminded me of so many good children's plays. It's so free, very direct in its storytelling, even though it's broken up and chopped, with lots of particles and pieces, it's not afraid to break rules. It sets up reality and breaks reality, changes times. You don't know when a lot of scenes are taking place. You can be going from a scene that happened a day ago to a scene that happened two years ago. It's all about good storytelling."

Unlike the Broadway production, which was filled with technical wizardry to depict Christopher's journey, Hopkins is aiming for something simpler.

"We're not going to have all the theatrics that Broadway had with all the electronics, lighting, bells and whistles. We'll have some, but the key objective is to tell the story through the eyes of Christopher and what's the best way to do that theatrically."

Though the story is highly specific to Christopher "it becomes universal. He goes on this really dangerous journey for himself and he's different than other people. But a lot of us feel different than others," Hopkins said. "I always did as a youngster. I was just the odd guy. We identify with that journey, and he's successful at it, so it becomes the hero's journey. He goes eye to eye with the dragon and succeeds."

The cast is led by Alexander Stuart, who is only the second American actor on the autism spectrum to play Christopher. It's an exhausting role because Christopher is on stage from the first scene to the last. Stuart is reprising the role after playing Christopher at Actors Theatre of Louisville in the fall.

"Obviously what's unique about Christopher is that he's a boy on the autism spectrum, but it never specifies if it's Aspergers or what," Stuart said. "He processes and communicates information in a way that's different from what we in society have come to hold as a standard. Compared to the more neurotypical worlds, he stands out."

The play also explores how Christopher is a bit out of sync. "The world is told to hold things in emotionally or hold information from others. Christopher doesn't relate to that. That's why he's so connected to animals. They don't lie to him and he finds value in that."

Because the play and book don't specify Christopher's condition, Stuart said it gives him freedom in how he plays the role. "I can play him more reserved or very loud and boisterous. I'm also on the spectrum and I'm trying to bring truth, bring down the barrier of seeing autistic people as robotic vessels of information."

Stuart is joined by a large cast that features several actors who will be familiar to FST audiences, including Rachel Moulton as his mother, Judy, and Todd Licea as his father, Ed. FST newcomer Ashton Heyl plays a "voice in Christopher's head guiding him when he is alone," and she serves as a kind of narrator "with awareness at times of the audience and wanting them to bring them along and assist them if maybe there are things they don't understand."

Moulton said the audience meets Judy in Christopher's memory "and you hear about her relationship with both her husband and her son through letters. She's introduced in these beautiful slivers and glimpses. It's very cinematic."

Licea said the father's "ride is deep. He goes through a lot and his son helps him move toward the light, but it ain't easy. I was telling Alex that one of the great things about getting older as an actor is that so many of the plays that come along, you've lived so many of the moments. As an actor you only have yourself to bring to the theater and it's cathartic as an actor. There are so many parallels to life in this play. It's just such a gift to get unpack all of that stuff through the play as I hope audience members will."

The cast also includes returning actors Brooke Benson, Sam Mossler, Liz Power, Alex Teicheira and new FST actor Michael J. Berry.

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