Thursday, June 15, 2017

CURIOUS Voice of a Hero at ASU Gammage

Adam Langdon , Felicity Jones Latta and Maria Elena Ramirez
Photo by Joan Marcus
by Jennifer Haaland

Mark Haddon invented a new kind of hero more than a decade ago with his novel Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time. Severely affected by Asperger's Syndrome, 15-year-old hero Christopher struggles to effectively communicate or process emotion....his own or others'.  Maria Elena Ramirez, on tour with the Broadway play adaptation of Curious Incident that plays next week at ASU Gammage visited with PHX Stages about how she, as Christopher's teacher, becomes--in a way--his voice.

"When Christopher, who lives in England, finds his neighbor's dog murdered, he goes on a quest to discover how it happened. I play a teacher at his school who encourages him to write the story," Ramirez says summarizing the 2015 drama that won five Tony Awards including Best Play. "Siobhan [the teacher] becomes a sort of narrator of the show because Christopher's not good at expressing himself. She's one of the few people in his world that understands."

Readers may recall the teacher is just barely present in the novel, though Christopher's thoughts emphasize how much he depends on and admires her.  On stage, however, the play turns that around so that she gets to communicate what he can't.

"She is the most positive force in his life," says Ramirez about her character. "Siobhan has a big heart. She's also a realist. I like her approach; she never talks down to Christopher."

While Christopher is solving the murder, the audience is digesting more than detective work. We get a rare, very human, insider's presentation of autism.

"Siobhan also gives voice inadvertently to a little-known population," Ramirez says. "The story lets the audience know what people like Christopher are facing. They need to learn differently how to live… from how to navigate public transportation to how to interpret emotions on people's faces."

Adam Langdon
photo by Joan Marcus
The lighting and scenic design of Curious Incident also garnered Tony Awards.  The Gammage audience will see technical elements that illuminate Christopher's whirling thoughts, the cacophony of ideas he himself is unable to express.

"The most unexpected aspect of the show is the way we tell it. It's like watching the story unfold inside Christopher's mind. The audience will experience how Christopher experiences the world," Ramirez says. "Sounds and music can be excruciating. Bright lights and abrupt movements are sometimes not so pleasant. Not many shows can express ideas the way Curious Incident does."

As the best classroom instructors often note, Ramirez suggests Siobhan learns more from her students than she teaches.  So, Hero Christopher shines on two fronts: murder detective and human commentary.  And Ramirez?  She gives voice to his heroism.

"Gosh! Christopher teaches her so much. This whole play is about what Christopher teaches us," Ramirez gushes. "She is constantly in wonder of what he can do. She is in awe that he realizes how weird the social constructs of the world are when the rest of us are just sort of playing along."  

"Always, he tells the truth. He sees the world as it is," Ramirez concludes. "The way he can overcome challenges is the beautiful difference."

Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-time plays at ASU Gammage from June 20th to June 25th asugammage.com

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