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Autism-spectrum character anchors 'Curious Incident...' on stage starting Oct. 19 in Shrewsbury

Telegram & Gazette - 10/19/2018

Oct. 19--SHREWSBURY -- The Tony Award-winning play "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" has some extraordinary elements.

Christopher is a 15-year-old with an extraordinary brain, a mathematical genius on the autism spectrum for whom walking down the street or holding a conversation is an almost impossible challenge. But he feels compelled to investigate the murder of a neighbor's dog, found speared with a garden fork just after midnight. The investigation will take Christopher into some uncharted territory, including discoveries about his parents. A sympathetic special education teacher helps tell the story.

Which is not to say that the extraordinary cannot also be universally understood and comprehended.

"For us at its heart it's a coming-of-age story and a family drama," said Eric Butler, who is directing the Central Massachusetts premiere of the play, being presented by Pilgrim Soul Productions with performances beginning at 7:30 p.m.Oct. 19 at St. John's High School.

"It's a coming-of-age story about overcoming obstacles. I think it's possible for all of us to move forward," Butler said.

"I want the audience to leave with a sense of empathy not just for people on the autism spectrum but for everyone," said Andrew Shoro, who is playing Christopher. "Just an understanding that we all have to go through life but some have to get through certain obstacles."

The play, adapted by Simon Stephens from the best-selling novel of the same name by Mark Haddon, debuted at the West End in London in 2013 and on Broadway in 2014. Both productions were known for their technological wizardry employed to reflect the often chaotic, frightening world of the play's protagonist.

Butler has his technical crew including sound design by Tom Powers and lighting design by Tyson Miller.

"We'll certainly be using elaborate sound design, projection design, and we have a tremendous lighting designer on board," Butler said.

"Christopher does go out and explore the world on his own, a 15-year-old on the autism spectrum," said Shoro. "We do a lot of tech work, movement work, to show how Christopher perceived that chaos. It's staged so excellently. It's a very helpful tool for me as an actor."

Beyond the technical, however, Butler reached out to the local autism community and he and Shoro were able to spend the day with a young man on the autism spectrum and his mother.

"It was a really fun day for us. We got to play tennis, play video games, shop at Walmart and see him in his everyday. We really tried to understand autism before taking it on the stage," Butler said.

Playing Christopher and also meeting the young man have been "incredibly eye-opening," Shoro said. Christopher is someone for whom his world is clearly defined. "It's always very clear for Christopher what his objective is."

Shoro's objective is to portray Christopher "as honestly as possible while being as respectful as I can in rendering that his experience of the world is different from my own."

Butler took a similar outreach approach when he directed the 2016 Worcester County Light Opera Company production of Nina Raine's "Tribes," which deals with a relationship against the backdrop of deafness. Among the groups that collaborated in that production was the Learning Center for the Deaf.

One of the cast members of "Tribes" was Matthew J. Carr, the founder and artistic director of Pilgrim Soul Productions.

Carr said that when he saw a production of "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time" in New York City, "I was deeply moved by the story of this young man's relationship with his family and his teacher, and his unwavering determination to succeed in the face of seemingly insurmountable odds. I knew immediately that I wanted to somehow bring this play to Pilgrim Soul's audience. I also knew immediately that I wanted Eric Butler to be at the helm of this exciting theatrical journey."

While "The Curious Incident ... " is not a St. John's High School production (it is being staged in the new Black Box Theater in the Ryken Center), both Butler and and Shoro have a common bond with the school, including being alums.

Butler, who has directed for several area theater companies, has had a longstanding relationship with the school. Shoro said he discovered his love of theater performing in a St. John's production of "South Pacific." "From then on I was gung-ho on theater."

He graduated from Catholic University in Washington, D.C., with a degree in musical theater and received a master's degree in theater education from Emerson College in Boston. He is teaching at The Hanover Theatre Conservatory in Worcester.

Meanwhile, "I have been in love with this show since I saw it in London (as a student studying abroad)," Shoro said of "The Curious Incident ..." When he found out about auditions for the Pilgrim Soul production, he was heading back to St. John's.

Butler said he was impartial, but "Andrew really took some chances at his audition."

The role of Christopher is "very demanding," as the character never leaves the stage, Butler noted. With that, there are also a number of other key characters, such as the teacher, Siobhan, played by Katie Speed. All told, the production has a cast of 11 actors.

"It's ensemble storytelling," Shoro said.

"It's been a challenging experience and hopefully a rewarding one," said Butler.

"Eric (Butler) and his team of technical designers and a stellar cast of local performers have worked tirelessly to integrate all of the elements of this multifaceted production," said Carr. "My hope is that we will succeed in immersing our audience in Christopher's world, and without giving away the ending, I hope that they will be moved to respond to Christopher's final question with a resounding 'yes!' "

Note: Pilgrim Soul Productions will stage an "autism-friendly" performance at 2 p.m.Oct. 21. Lighting and sound effects will be modified, and rest breaks, movement, snacks and electronic devices (no sound) will be permitted. All tickets for this performance are $15.

Contact Richard Duckett at richard.duckett@telegram.com. Follow him on Twitter @TGRDuckett

Pilgrim Soul Productions presents "The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time"

When: 7:30 p.m.Oct. 19, 20, 26 and 27; 2 p.m.Oct. 21 ("autism friendly") and 28

Where: Black Box Theater, iRyken Center, St. John's High School, 378 Main St., Shrewsbury

How much: $25; $22 under 18 and seniors; $15 Oct. 21. To reserve tickets call (508) 296-0797 or email pilgrimsoulproductions@gmail.com. Tickets are also available at the door

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