Playwright Simon Stephens adapted “Curious Incident,” the 2015 Tony winner for best play, from a 2003 novel by Mark Haddon. Set in a town in southwest England, the play depicts its 15-year-old protagonist, Christopher Boone, as a mathematical genius on the autism spectrum. Right off the bat, the character has a mystery to solve: Who killed his neighbor’s dog in the dead of the night?
Harrison Bryan, who plays Christopher, is rehearsing a scene in which the character searches his house for a book hidden by his father. The projection design, meanwhile, evokes a video game as Christopher completes his quest. When Christopher comes across a toolbox — which the character makes a point of telling us is “for DIY” — co-director Ryan Rilette floats an idea. “What if we type it out?” he asks Mezzocchi, who nods, his eyes still locked on his computer. Moments later, the animation includes a new wrinkle: The letters DIY now appear one by one in an eight-bit font, alongside the preexisting design.
Bryan then walks over to the monitor with a suggestion of his own. “I want to reverse-Tetris into it,” he says, guiding his hand upward across the monitor. After a couple of mouse clicks, the “DIY” text expands to spell out “Doing It Yourself,” with the additional letters scrolling into place from the bottom of the screen.
“I built it in a way that’s super flexible,” Mezzocchi later says of the projection design. “I have about 3,000 images in the software ready to go, and we’re constantly just dumping more into it. With the software I’ve built out, the keyboard feels like a piano.”
“For me,” Rilette adds, “it’s kind of like having an entire symphony.”
In a typical regional production, a projection designer may present plans early in rehearsal, then work behind the scenes until the final days before preview performances start. When Rilette took the reins on “Curious Incident” and reached out to Mezzocchi, the duo decided that, on a production of such technical ambition, it made more sense to integrate the projections at an earlier stage. Although Rilette, 46, and Mezzocchi, 34, had worked together earlier this year on Round House’s “Oslo” as the director and projection designer, respectively, they agreed that a collaboration as co-directors would better serve their vision for “Curious Incident.”
“Holistically,” Rilette says, “this is a whole different process from anything I’ve worked on.”
When Marianne Elliott directed “Curious Incident” in London’s West End and on Broadway, the production used computer graphic-like projections to visualize Christopher’s mathematical inclinations and overstimulated senses. As Rilette and Mezzocchi developed their take on the material, they, like Christopher, had a puzzle to solve.
“How do we rethink the show?” Rilette recalls asking. “Using all of the tools at our disposal, how do we create a world in which we invite the audience to see the world from Christopher’s perspective?”
As the artistic director at Andy’s Summer Playhouse, a youth theater in New Hampshire, Mezzocchi has regularly interacted with children on the spectrum, seeing firsthand how they use video games to build social skills (a trend validated by various studies). So the creative team imagined Christopher as a gamer and worked that motif into the design.
Dramaturge Gabrielle Hoyt also conducted research, interviewing people on the spectrum and unearthing videos that attempt to portray what sensory overload feels like. In one, directed by “Spider-Man: Into the Spider-Verse” story artist Miguel Jiron, photorealistic footage of a crowded New York City street transforms into pencil-drawn animation. As a young boy navigates the city, flashes of color stand in for moments of overstimulation.
The video struck Rilette and Mezzocchi on a visceral level. They then realized the sketched-animation style had a dramatic place in “Curious Incident”: The first act is narrated by Christopher’s teacher as she reads from the book he’s been writing by hand about his detective work. By flooding the stage with pulsating, pencil-drawn imagery, the production could bring Christopher’s book to life with a design independent of the show’s Broadway and West End aesthetic.
“As a video designer, you’re always looking for the picture that can say more words than the text is saying,” Mezzocchi says. “But dramaturgically, it has to be in line with the show and not distracting.”
The co-directors say they developed a shared understanding of the narrative and characters through conversations before rehearsal. Rilette then took the lead on working through the text with the actors while Mezzocchi fine-tuned the predesigned projections and implemented new ideas in real time, though their responsibilities constantly overlapped. Bryan, who previously played Christopher at a Salt Lake City theater in 2017, brought his own understanding of the character that influenced the visual vocabulary throughout rehearsal.
“There wasn’t a strict rule on how any of these ideas or drawings or illustrations or projections got created,” Bryan says. “It was truly impulse work. In very much a way that anyone would block or choreograph a play, we’re just doing that with the technology that’s in our hands. That’s the magic of it. It doesn’t just feel like decoration. It really feels actor-driven.”
Keeping the production focused on Christopher’s self-discovery was crucial for Rilette and Mezzocchi, who made the second act’s projection design more grounded in reality than the first, as the character embarks on a psychologically daunting trip to London. But there is a final artistic flourish after the curtain call, as a bonus scene shows Christopher using the full scope of the theater’s technology to giddily solve a complex algebraic formula.
“I hope that audiences walk away feeling that they got to know Christopher. That’s it,” Rilette says of the production, which officially opened Monday. “While the technology is stunning and beautiful, the goal is never for it to overshadow. The goal is for it to help you as an audience member fall deeper into the story.”
The Curious Incident of the Dog in the Nighttime
Roundhouse Theatre, 4545 East-West Hwy., Bethesda. 240-644-1100. roundhousetheatre.org.
Dates: Through Dec. 22.