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Lead actor excels in Vortex’s ‘Curious Incident’

ALBUQUERQUE, N.M. — Last year Fusion Theatre produced an intellectually thrilling production of Simon Stephens’ play, “Heisenberg.”

This year Vortex Theatre takes on the challenge of an even more difficult Stephens play, “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time.” What makes this play more challenging is not the larger cast and multiple locations that need to be staged, but rather the acting skill necessary to convey the life of the central character, a 15-year-old boy with autism, a math prodigy who is also traversing the hell of being the only child of two well-meaning but disastrously dysfunctional parents.

The play opens with a dog’s violent death, and Christopher’s quest to find out who perpetrated such a senseless and cruel killing. While initially confined to his own manageable neighborhood, Christopher eventually tries to make his way to London, and the staging of this scene alone makes this Vortex production well worth seeing. Poor Christopher must navigate all the difficulties most of us have gotten used to, barely noticing how unnatural and how mediated our technologically driven lives have become. I was reminded of my own 84-year-old dad, who doesn’t use e-mail or have a cellphone, and who must feel likes he’s been transported to another planet where everyone knows the language and has the skills to survive but him.

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” was adapted from a novel by Mark Haddon and is presented as a play-within-a-play, the play being the dramatic creation of Christopher, with help from his tutor, who narrates (nicely played by Holly Deuel Gilster, who unfortunately narrates in the dark). There is a sort of chorus that remains on stage, taking parts when necessary, and even animating inanimate objects. When Christopher must use an ATM for the first time actor Laira Magnusson becomes the machine, talking like a robot and literally spitting out the (invisible) money.

The supporting cast is uniformly excellent, with an especially fine performance from Bridget Dunne in a crucial role.

But the show belongs to Thomas Yegerlehner, who inhabits the role of Christopher with complete assurance and believability; his body language, facial expressions, speech rhythms and emotional intensity convey a young man whose inner world is drastically different from the rest of us. For one thing, he is incapable of telling a lie; for another, he sees the myriad wonders of nature in amazing detail. This makes him profoundly vulnerable, but also acutely alive. He is an extraordinary young man, and Yegerlehner’s performance is equally extraordinary.

Director Leslee Richards makes excellent use of her talented ensemble, getting most of her effects from the actors themselves, with assistance from movement director Judith Chazin-Bennahum. Nice effects are also produced by lighting designer Josh Bien; for instance in one scene he utilizes a filter to create little stars of light, and in another he miraculously produces the lighted outline of an escalator.

This is an incredibly engaging show theatrically (if a little too long), but even more importantly it testifies to the challenge and the ultimate glory of living an authentic human life in an often dehumanizing world.

“The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” plays through Oct. 14 at Vortex Theatre, 2900 Carlisle NE, Albuquerque. Visit vortexabq.org or call 247-8600 for reservations.

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