Within 24 hours in Albuquerque last weekend, I saw two tales of troubled teenagers. In many ways, the Vortex stage production of “The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Night-Time” and the documentary at the Cinemark Movies 8 “Three Identical Strangers” are quite different. What they have in common is family dynamics that pose thought-provoking issues of how sons’ troubles are influenced by their parents’ problems, their genetic inheritance and their upbringing. What control do we have over our fate, these two tales ask.
The Vortex production, which opened Friday, is a skillful blending of mood, movement and performance with ten human actors and one charming and thoroughly professional canine performer enacting multiple roles on a bare but evocative stage. The story originated with Arthur Conan Doyle’s Sherlock Holmes, evolved into a novel by Mark Haddon and then ended up as a successful play by Simon Stephens that ran, among other places, in London in 2012 and New York in 2014.
The focus on the play is 15-year-old Christopher, an autistic boy combining mathematical brilliance with inability to tolerate being touched and difficulty dealing with the mundane facets of the world. At the start of the play he discovers a dead dog and dedicates himself to finding out who killed it and why. His sleuthing uncovers evidence that alters his (and the audience’s) perception of his troubled family. The play in one sense is a study in how people learn to live with themselves, with what they are and are not, and build upon that knowledge to create successful lives.
The young and relatively inexperienced Thomas Yegerlehner, is a wonder as Christopher. He is on stage during the entire play. His task is to manifest the visible symptoms of autism while all the time suggesting there is more to this boy than meets the eye. The happy ending does not come as a surprise, but it certainly comes as a delightful coda.
Autism seems to be a subject about which the Vortex is ambivalent. The director’s note points out that the play does not identify Christopher”s “syndrome,” adding, “Christopher’s behavior might be called ‘on the Autism Spectrum.’ But it can also be called simply odd or difficult. To put a label on it is an over-simplification, when the story is much more about personal growth within a family, led by a brilliant young man who refuses to let the world define him.” Yet the Sept. 29 performance is a benefit for the Holman Foundation for Autism.
Coordinating this large number of characters in almost constant motion on a small stage is a challenging job. Director Leslie Richards, a key member of the Vortex board, pulls it off with the help of Judith Chazim-Bennahum, formerly a principal soloist for the Metropolitan Opera Ballet Company in New York, who has the title of movement director.
Tim Crofton as the boy’s father Ed, alternates between a rough loudmouth who shouts constantly at the top of his lungs and a gentle sentimentalist who struggles to find ways to express his profound love of his son. Holly Deuel Gilster as Siobhan and Bridget S. Dunne also deliver skillful and convincing performances.
The play continues weekends though Oct. 14 at the Vortex, 2900 Carlisle Blvd. NE. The Sept. 23 performance is pay what you will. Founded in1976, the Vortex builds itself as Albuquerque’s oldest continuously running black box theater. For tickets and information go to vortexabq.org or call 505-247-8600.
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The second-run Cinemark Movies 8 usually screens action movies, cartoons and gentle family fare, but “Three Identical Strangers” is something quite different—a documentary, a mystery, a social scandal and a profound philosophical debate all rolled into one. I highly recommend it.
In 1980, three apparently identical 19-year-olds, David Kellman, Bobby Shafran and Eddy Galland,
discover through a series of coincidences that they are triplets who were separated shortly after birth. The mass media fasten onto the story and tell it as a heartwarming tale of rediscovery.
It later emerges, however, that neither the boys nor their adoptive parents knew they had siblings. How and why this fact was kept hidden is the mystery that British filmmaker Tim Wardle probes.
The scandal is that there was in fact a hidden agenda, a kind of psychological and social manipulation as callous as it was cruel.
The underlying philosophical debate is about the power of nature versus nurture to shape human beings. The boys are nowhere as alike as they seemed. How much of what they became was due to their identical genes and how much to the influence of their highly diverse families? At the end, there is ample evidence to support both sides of the argument.
Much about the nature of the experiment and its conclusions remains unknown to this day.
The story, like that of the autistic boy Christopher at the Vortex, can’t help but make us all wonder who are we really, the pawns of genetic destiny or creations of the life we live.