Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time Works Brilliantly on Stage

Adapted and directed by Simon Stephens
National Theatre Live
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 When I heard that the National Theatre of London had done a stage adaptation of Mark Haddon’s acclaimed novel The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time, my first thought was “How?” Luckily my second instinct was to check it out. Glad I did—it’s a small masterpiece the likes of which will make North American audiences jealous of the creativity that can be accomplished when government subsidizes the arts.  (Imagine such a thing!) Anyone living within driving distance of a movie theater that broadcasts NT productions should make a beeline for this one.

If you’ve read the novel, you will certainly share my kneejerk skepticism over turning it into a play. Its central character is Christopher, a 15-year-old high functioning autistic student. He’s imaginative, a math savant, capable of intense concentration, and is (literally) incapable of falsehood. He’s also terrified of being touched or having his routines altered, has few social graces, is unable to master most mundane tasks, and is so withdrawn that he makes Mr. Spock seem like Mr. Rogers. We first meet Christopher—played with utter brilliance by Luke Treadway–bending over the body of a pitchforked dog, which he is falsely accused of having killed. And we witness his first emotional meltdown when he assaults the policeman who lays hands on him. That trauma out of the way, we proceed to learn about Christopher, his well-meaning but ineffectual father (Paul Ritter), his missing mother (Nicola Walker), and his special needs teacher, Siobhan (Niamh Cusack). I’ll say no more except to say that when Christopher becomes obsessed with solving the dog’s murder, it takes him and the audience on a journey fraught with peril, revelation, drama, and reconciliation.

Haddon’s novel was told almost entirely from Christopher’s (skewed) point of view, so the first stage hurdle is how to represent a mind whose logic runs on a completely different course than most. How, indeed, does one physically show something as abstract as human thought? Stephens and producer Marianne Elliott accomplish this with a set that’s where minimalism meets high tech. The play takes place in a theater in the round upon a bare stage that’s something akin to a mash between a chalkboard, an electrical grid, and an iPad. It can be drawn upon or projected onto, and subsurface lights and diodes are activated by computers to build what can be described as light-based semiotic signs. Need to show a subway train? Activate two vertical lines and set them in motion.  A neighborhood street? A series of squares connected by lighted corridors along which actors dash will do the trick. When Christopher’s mind overloads, lights flash, and holographic letters tumble randomly from the ceiling like snowy gibberish.

Clever staging will take one only so far, though, and it’s the acting that makes those lights sparkle. Treadway is astonishing, both physically and in his range of emotions. He can go from withdrawn to a semi-psychotic tiger and back with the brush of fingertips. He also strikes the perfect balance between being lovable and exasperating. Kudos also to Ritter, who convincingly portrays a working-class bloke with simple tastes who wants to do well for a son who is equal parts genius and volcano, but hasn’t a clue on how to manage his own emotions, let alone Christopher’s.  Niamh Cusack—the younger sister of Sinéad—is also superb as Siobhan, a teacher with the patience of a saint, but the cleverness to plant ideas in Christopher’s mind in non-threatening ways. All I’ll say is this: stay until the very end, after the credits.

Loved the book and loved they play even more. It reminds us that theater done well, with superb actors and visionary directors, casts magical spells that TV and movies often fail to convey. The tendency of the latter would be to convert Christopher’s story to biography, which isn’t the best frame for a boy who lives in his imagination. Simon Stephens invites us inside Christopher’s chaotic mind and we are richer for the experience. —Rob Weir


Chris Daniels Enjoys Better Days and Shares

Better Days
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Does the name Chris Daniels ring any bells? Not right away? How about Sam Bush? Daniels been in bands with him. Lloyd Maines? Check. Richie Furay? Yep. Béla Fleck? Un huh. He hangs half the bluegrass, folk, and country pantheon, but he generally only headlines with his Colorado-based band, The Kings, and this is only his second solo album since 1983. We can be happy he made it, but he’s even happier; Daniels celebrates his 60th birthday with this album after almost losing his life to leukemia. And if you think there’s no humor in that, give a listen to “Medical Marijuana,” whose wry witticisms evoke Bill Hicks. We can certainly indulge him in sunny remembrances of favorite places such as “South Carolina” and “El Dorado Canyon.” “Cabin Fever”–a song he penned in 1976–is an honorary New England anthem for all who know it. Better Days is Daniels’ welcome back to health and it strikes a lovely balance between new energy and earned nostalgia. Regarding the latter, the project is actually an album and a half--disc two contains five live tracks from a show he did with New Grass Revival in 1985. It’s also one of the last of the true album CDs, a perfect-bound 60-page booklet printed on heavy stock and filled with lyrics, thoughts, and photos. Here’s wishing Daniels lots of better days.

Check out the Webpage link above for music samples and other information. 


The War on Stupid Products Part Two

Candidates for Dumb Product of 2012.

I admit it. I’m a bit obsessed by stupid consumerism. Indulge me—here’s part two of my private war on stupid products and the people who buy them. First case: panko. Panko is Japanese for “bread crumbs from which the crust has been removed,” maybe with a little seasoning thrown in. Make your own seasoned bread crumbs, folks. The recipe is pretty basic: bread crumbs + as much salt as you want + whatever seasonings you like.

Panko is bad enough, but Kraft actually sells packaged bread crumbs. My first thought is that I should say nothing. Do we really want people who would buy bread crumbs swimming in humanity’s gene pool? Let ‘em go broke from buying dumb products and (hopefully) starve before they can perpetuate their inanity. But that’s a tad uncharitable, don’t you think? So my next thought was to offer a PSA (Public Service Announcement) on how to make bread crumbs. Here it is:
                  Step One: Take some bread
                  Step Two: Crumble it. Household hint: It works best if you lightly toast the bread.

“I can’t crumble it small enough,” you protest? PSA # 2: Use a food processor or blender. Lightly toast (or use stale) bread, look for little button that makes machine go “whirrrrr.” Insert bread, secure top, push button, and wait for crumbs to become small enough. Important: Push button again so machine stops going “whirrrr.” Do not put fingers or any other object into machine when it is making “whirrrr” noise. A Krupps coffee grinder works really well also, and you can buy one for about the price of 5 Kraft crumb packages. Think of the luxury of being able to make bread crumbs whenever you like!

Dumb product number 2: Tide detergent pods—tiny little packets that combine laundry soap and softener. Ummm, why? PSA # 3: All grocery stores are required to engage in a practice known as “unit pricing.” It’s the number on the shelf tag that isn’t how much the item costs. It tells you how you are spending per application or consumption of a product. Check out the number beside the pods. Now look at the same number for bottled or boxed detergent/softener. I’ll save you the trouble. This is what you’ll learn: You could send out your laundry cheaper than using pods.   

Some products are just pure head-scratchers, like WhoNu?  This is an Oreo-wannabe cookie that says if you eat three of them—as if!—you’d consume as much fiber as a bowl of oatmeal, as much calcium as eight-ounces of milk, and as much Vitamin C as a cup of blueberries. Best of all, no corn syrup, and no trans fat. Where to begin? How about with what is not said. How about that it’s identical in almost every way to an actual Oreo? Forget trans fat, each product will deliver 160 calories for every three you inhale. Each also delivers 7 grams of total fat, about 150 milligrams of salt, and a whopping 14 grams of sugar.
WhoNu? is basically an Oreo with a multi-vitamin ground into the cookie mix. Yum, yum. Ever chew your daily vitamin? You don’t even want to know what masking agents go into the cookie to avoid that taste! Look—no one eats a chocolate sandwich cookie under the illusion that one has found that long-sought-after substitute for a cup of blueberries! Please introduce me to anyone you know who thinks WhoNu? is health food; I have a double-secret mission for that person. I can’t say more than this: vault, Mitt, Cayman Islands….
 I’ve saved la piece de dumbdance for last. What prompts a person to buy Egg Beaters or their generic equivalents? Unless you’re one of a very, very small group of people that is allergic to yolks, there is but one reason: weight. You are trying to reduce your cholesterol and calorie intake because there are some social situations in which it’s gauche to wear sweat pants and an oversized hoodie hanging lower than your rump. So what’s the new Egg Beaters product we’ve all been waiting for? Ta da!!! Egg Beaters with three cheeses! Satire is dead; you can’t make this stuff up. A scrambled real egg has 199 calories; Egg Beaters just 30. Until you add cheese, of course. Add 106 for Swiss, 113 for cheddar, and 98 for provolone. Do we even want to do the cholesterol math? Good lord! Egg Beaters with three cheeses makes about as much sense is arsenic for a snake bite. The company must think we’re fools. Alas, it’s probably right.

PSA # 4: How to make your own egg beaters. Take an egg (spherical shelled object extruded from a chicken’s fanny). Crack egg into two halves. Shift egg between two shell halves while allowing clear runny substance to dribble into a bowl. Do this until all you have left is the yolk. Toss yolk. What’s left is an egg beater! And, yes, it’s way cheaper to buy real eggs and toss the yolks than to buy packaged egg whites.