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Swine Palace navigates a mystery through the eyes of an autistic boy in 'The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time'

The Advocate - 9/18/2018

Sept. 18--The audience will know something is off-kilter with Christopher in Simon Stephens' 2012 Tony Award-winning play, "The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time."

For one, Christopher John Francis Boone has no social skills, yet he's a 15-year-old mathematical genius. He also doesn't like being touched to the point of violently jumping back anytime someone reaches out to him.

But there will be no discussion of Asperger's syndrome on the autism spectrum during Swine Palace's performances of Stephens' play. The symptoms definitely will be there, as they are in Mark Haddon's best-selling novel on which the play is based. But even Haddon never labels Christopher as autistic.

"Mark Haddon wanted readers to see the world through Christopher's eyes," director Rick Holden says. "He wanted them to see that Christopher is just as much a human being as anyone else; he just operates differently."

And though Stephens does the same in the play, Holden says Swine Palace had to make its own decisions on how to portray the main character.

"We never mention autism, but it's presented in such a way that you know what it is," Holden says. "You'll see it in how he processes things. If there's too much stimuli, he has to stop and pare it down."

Even that, however, doesn't stop outside circumstances from upturning Christopher's world as he pours all of his energy into solving the death of his neighbor's dog.

Though Haddon wrote his novel in a first-person narrative, the stage adaptation is presented as a play within a play written by Christopher and read aloud by his teacher.

The story takes place in the British cities of Swindon and London, where the 15-year-old, played by Tyler Jones, finds himself under suspicion after someone has killed his neighbor's dog with a garden fork.

"Christopher is a big fan of Sherlock Holmes mysteries, so he uses what he's learned in the books when he investigates the dog's death," Jones says.

No one would guess that Jones actually is a 29-year-old equity actor playing a boy in his midteens. The New York resident has played younger parts in the past.

Back to the story, Christopher's attempt at solving the mystery prompts resistance from his neighbors. His dad, Ed, played by Michael DiSalvo, is especially against it.

"Ed is the person who is least equipped to deal with Christopher," says DiSalvo, a student in the School of Theatre's master's program. "He's a working-class plumber, and he doesn't have the answers, yet he becomes Christopher's biggest advocate."

And when Ed forbids Christopher's sleuthing, Christopher argues to himself that many rules are made to be broken.

"It's funny, because when his dad tells him not to do something, he'll argue back, saying he didn't," says master's student Andrea Morales, who plays the teen's mom, Judy. "And in Christopher's mind, he didn't disobey, because he didn't do the exact thing his father told him not to do."

Stage sets are spare, with screens serving as the backdrop as light projections flash geometric shapes symbolizing Christopher's thought process. The shapes are as concise as his mathematical reasoning, where solutions are concrete.

The results turn his world inside out.

Jones drew on experience in preparing to play Christopher. He'd once worked at a children's center where some of the kids were at different levels on the autism spectrum. He also turned to YouTube to learn more about autism, watching as kids, advocates and professionals talked about the spectrum.

"I know that sounds bad, but YouTube is a gift," Jones says. "It makes the information more accessible."

Morales also has worked with autistic children as a teaching artist.

"What struck me was how the parents don't have anyone to talk to about this," she says. "It puts a strain on relationships and friendships. You see marriages break up under this strain. And this is important in the play, because Christopher comes to realize that his parents are human and they make mistakes."

In the end, the audience will see that Christopher isn't so different from those around him.

"Autism doesn't make him any less capable," DiSalvo says. "This play is about patience, empathy and love. He's human, too."

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'The Curious Case of the Dog in the Night-Time'

Swine Palace's first production of the 2018-19 season

WHEN: Wednesday-Friday, Sunday, and Sept. 25-28 and Sept. 30. Sunday matinees begin at 2 p.m. All other performances begin at 7:30 p.m.

WHERE: Claude L. Shaver Theatre, LSU Music and Dramatic Arts Building, Dalrymple Drive.

ADMISSION: Tickets are $12 for the Wednesday preview performance. All other tickets are $14-$29.

TICKETS/INFORMATION: Call (225) 578-3527 or visit swinepalace.org.

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(c)2018 The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La.

Visit The Advocate, Baton Rouge, La. at www.theadvocate.com

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