Saturday, January 13, 2018

Theatre 2018: Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, The Lorax

It is interesting to me how our age of globalization has impacted the theatre world.  In 2017, multiple Canadian shows including Come From Away, Kim's Convenience, Spoon River and Of Human Bondage have played in New York.  London's West End is littered with American productions including The Book of Mormon, Aladdin and The Lion King.  Here in Toronto, the first three shows of our 2017/18 Mirvish subscription have all been from overseas.  North By NorthWest originated in Melbourne Australia, while The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night and The Lorax both hail from London.  Each of these shows is based on another more famous source from the iconic Alfred Hitchcock movie, the compelling book by Mark Haddon and the lyrical, moralistic children's story by Dr. Seuss respectively.  None of these sources were easy to adapt for live theatre and it was fascinating to see the creative ways that each of these stage shows achieved this.

The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night is told from the perspective of a moderately functional autistic teenager named Christopher Boone, as he deals with his unique stresses of every day life while unraveling the mysteries of who killed a neighbour's dog, and what happened to his mother.  Author Mark Haddon does an amazing job of capturing the mindset of Christopher, who is extremely intelligent and meticulous in many ways, but also socially regressed in others. Prior to watching the play, I had encountered this story in two different ways, each giving me a different experience into Christopher's world.  I first listened to it on an audio book, which was read aloud and recorded onto CDs that you could borrow from the library.  The audio book narrator took on Christopher's voice, reciting lists and explaining facts as the boy saw them, in a matter-of-fact, often confused manner.  Any dialogue by other characters such as Christopher's father, his therapist Sibohan, or the neighbours around his block, are voiced by Christopher, as he interprets his understanding of what they said.

Listening to the CDs, I discovered that the chapter were denoted in incremental prime numbers, reflecting the way Christopher thought.  When I first heard the chapters jump from 3 to 5, I thought I had somehow skipped a section until I realized what was happening.  After thoroughly enjoying listening to the story, I decided to read it in book format and was surprised by all the illustrations found on the pages, visually capturing Christopher's thought processes as he documented them in a journal that he was writing.  Christopher drew flow charts, maps of his neighbourhood, facial expressions that he tried to comprehend, formations of stars, and red vs yellow cars.  Both the audio and the paper book formats did an excellent job of capturing Christopher's unique thoughts and feelings.

Coming from London's National Theatre, the set of the live version of The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night, uses a large cubic box made up of video screens on the walls, floor and ceiling to project images reflecting Christopher's thought processes and how he sees the world.  Unlike the book, the other characters in the story speak their own dialogue and interact with Christopher, but the interactions are filtered through his eyes and interpretations.  The result is innovative, visually stunning and very effective.

I never read Dr. Seuss' children's book The Lorax when I was young, so to prepare for attending the live show of this moralistic tale of corporate greed and pleas for environmental protection, I watched the delightful 1972 TV animated short based on his book.  Narrated by actor Eddie Albert, this rendition perfectly captured the spirit of the original, by faithfully following Dr. Seuss' poetic text and whimsical illustrations.  The book is about an overly ambitious businessman called "The Once-ler" who creates an industry by chopping down Truffula trees in order to mass-produce "thneeds" (a knitted material that can be manipulated into any form).  Blinded by greed, the Once-ler ignores the warnings about the environmental dangers of his endeavours that are delivered by the Lorax, "who speaks for the trees".  Eventually the Once-ler destroys the environment, forcing the fish, birds and animals to flee and when he chops down the last tree, his business collapses and he is left with a wasteland.  The Once-ler tells the tale of his demise to a young boy, and realizes that there is still hope for the world if he can get the next generation to take action.  The Lorax left a rock with the message "Unless", meaning "UNLESS someone like you. cares a whole awful lot, nothing is going to get better. It's not...".   This seems to be quite the dark tale to be told as a children's story!  It is interesting that the Once-ler is never shown except for his long green hands that are reminiscent of The Grinch, Dr. Seuss' other iconic green character.

 I also checked out the 2012 full-featured animated movie of The Lorax, and to my horror, this  version totally ruined the charm and sophistication of the source material.  While the basic story was still there, this movie did not use Dr. Seuss' lyrical text and instead produced a mindless animation that included all the cliche-ish tropes of modern cartoons, including the addition of the "quirky" family and a "love interest" for the boy, an additional villain even more evil than the Once-ler, and the typical chase scenes, mayhem and destruction that now seems to be mandatory in cartoons and modern live action movies.  I find it difficult to believe that the estate of Dr. Seuss sanctioned this travesty.

It was therefore with some misgivings that I attended the live action show.  Would this version from London's Old Vic retain the wonder of the book and the animated short, or would it follow in the misguided footsteps of the 2012 movie?  I am happy to say that the play does indeed capture all the charm and whimsy of the book, while still managing to extend the show to the running time of a full length play, adding fun song and dance numbers that fit in seamlessly with the plot.  To support the extra plot and exposition, additional rhyming verses were created that worked so well that they could not be differentiated from the original, unless you could quote the Dr. Seuss book line by line.  The Lorax was represented as a large puppet that requires three puppeteers (one of them also providing the voice) to manipulate.  I felt sorry for the puppeteer who controlled the Lorax's legs since he had to squat and move around like a crab.  The resulting range of motion for the Lorax was impressive.  The costumes and sets were gorgeous and perfectly reflected Seuss' illustrations.  The best feature of the sets was the colourful Truffala trees which stood tall and strong at the beginning, then descended into the ground as they were cut down.  This play exceeded my expectations by far, and delighted children and adults alike.  So far, Mirvish has picked three winning shows to start off its 2017/18 subscription series.