The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time at Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo

What’s better than discovering a new theatre? Discovering a good new theatre of course. This was my first experience at Yellow Tree Theatre in Osseo.  The theatre is in a strip mall, but do not let that deceive you.  Inside it feels quaint and unique, the lobby is not the sterile suburban space you are expecting. There is seating all around with atmospheric lighting, a little concession stand serving the usual candy and nuts, wine and beer. Bent Paddle seems to be their favored brewer, a favorite of mine from my drinking days, but they also have a selection of soft drinks for the teetotalers among us. Inside the theater is a thrust stage with seating on three sides.  There are about 120 seats total, so I can’t imagine there is a bad seat in the house.  There seemed to be ample parking, I imagine the only time there might be competition for the parking spots would be matinees when other strip mall stores might be open. I’m unsure of the dining options around the theatre I did see a Perkins down the street, but I don’t think that’s really a selling point. I think there is a story to be told more in depth on this theatre and so I will leave it at that for now as I may try and do a profile of the theatre and it’s founders in the future.  

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time tell the story of Christopher a young man on the Autism Spectrum, who in trying to discover the killer of the titular dog. Along the way he uncovers deeper secrets. The main mystery though is how Christopher’s mind works and how he will get through the dark secrets he unveils and his Math A levels. The play deals with the way Mark Thinks and sees the world, the way in which he interacts with his Father, his teachers, friends, strangers, and police. It is at times heartbreaking but ultimately uplifting and positive. I first read the book The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time by Mark Haddon, on which the show is based, shortly after it was published. Partly because the Blurb at the time noted that the main character had Asperger Syndrome. Full disclosure my oldest son Alex was diagnosed with Asperger Syndrome when he was young. He was 5 when the book was published. So this show contains a little extra oomph for me. The relationship between the Father and son held lots of moments of recognition for me, not just with Alex but also my younger son George. Yes it got a little dusty in the theatre again this week.

I saw the National Touring company production a few years ago and was blown away by the visuals as well as the story itself. If you’ve read the book, you can’t really imagine how they could translate it into a stage play. I knew that a small theatre in a strip mall in Osseo MN was not going to match the spectacular technical wonderment that marked the Original National Theatre, West End, and Broadway productions. I assumed they would go in a different direction, but they didn’t. The show still uses video projection to help you understand what is happening inside the mind of Mark, how it works and how he sees the world. It is largely through these visuals as well as the book Mark is writing for a class assignment which allows for Mark to speak what he perceives is happening, that make the transfer of an interior novel work on the stage. The staging, the use of projection, the set design and lighting were so creative and I applaud the skill of the artistic and craft staff at Yellow Tree. They captured for their small theatre the same things the larger company did for the giant theaters like the Orpheum. I was truly impressed with these elements of the production. I feel that the heads of those areas deserve to be singled out for praise. Emmet Kowler (Projection Designer), Arina Slobodianik (Scenic Designer), Courtney Schmitz (Lighting Designer), Matthew A. Gilbertson (Technical Director) Also needing to be acknowledged are Ellen Fenster (Director) and Simon Stephens the playwright whom without his words none of the rest would have mattered.

Last item I want to discuss are the performances.  There are basically 4 main actors who as far as I can tell play only the one character, then there are 5 Ensemble actors who take on different rolls.  Everyone is good, from the leads down to the ensembles, the Ensemble actors do a great job of creating multiple unique and engaging  characters.  I’d like to mention briefly the two actors that play Christopher’s parents Corey Mills, and Stacia Rice.  They both did top notch work bringing to life these characters who are deeply flawed and doing the best they can to raise a child who is challenging.  For the play to work it’s best we have to understand the horrible decisions they have both made but still see them as characters we want to succeed. The 3rd main actor is Laura Esping who plays Mark’s teacher Siobhan.  This character is at times part of the action and at other times outside of the action.  It  is not a showy roll or one that allows the actor to plumb the emotional depth, as the parents do.  Ms. Esping has the thankless role of shepherding us through the story, and it almost goes unnoticed, but not quite.  There is something about her that exudes control and confidence, she is not only Marks physical teacher but also the avatar he carries with him in his mind to remind him of his tools for dealing with stressful or new situations.

The lead is a little more problematic, Zach Schnitzer gives a great performance playing Mark. I have a small quibble with a choice he made or was directed to make. He plays it much more twitchy than I think is appropriate. When I saw the play before he was not played that way and as such I related more to the character as a stand in for my son Alex. So that is a very personal response to that choice that I must admit is very specific to me. I also think it doesn’t sit quite as well for more universal reasons. When he is all twitchy it’s harder to understand why the police don’t realize sooner they have to interact with him differently. The more physical performance makes that feel less understandable. Also this space is so intimate, it feels wrong to go for a more broader performance. That said and that choice aside it is an impressive performance all the same and certainly there would be people you could find in real life that present in that way, so a valid choice, just not one that sat perfectly for me.

Normally I try and review shows early in their run so that if someone sees the review and decides they want to go they will have a chance to do so. Unfortunately I hit this show right in the middle at the beginning of the third weekend, it has the rest of this weekend and two more weekends left so still plenty of time you say… But, sadly no. I just checked and the remaining 17 shows are completely sold out. That was with recently adding three shows.  If I hear of them adding any further performances, I’ll let you know…after I buy myself some more.