Live theater, unsolicited commentary. From Detroit to Lansing.


Bert V. Royal's Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead is more than an unauthorized riff on the work of Charles M. Schulz. Distilling the story into "It's like Peanuts, but older," suggests applying more mature problems to the exact traits of the characters we know. Instead, the adolescents in this Magenta Giraffe Theatre production may be have a familiar back story, but that's ancient history. We don't know these people any better than they know themselves: quite simply, and terrifyingly, they're teenagers.

The ubiquitous cartoon is populated by protagonist Charlie Brown and his sister, Sally, siblings Linus and Lucy van Pelt, Peppermint Patty (short for Patricia) and her sycophant Marcie, tiny-piano prodigy Schroeder, and unhygenic Pigpen. Royal skates the limits of fair use, so his universe entails CB and CB's Sister, Van and Van's Sister, BFFs Tricia (short for Patricia) and Marcy, piano enthusiast Beethoven, and nickname-eschewing Matt. It's an ingenious concept: the characters are granted depth because their pasts are ubiquitous, carefully laid out over decades of national exposure, and sympathy is ingrained in an audience based on that recognition. Royal is therefore free to explore the lonely, angry world of adolescence through characters we are predisposed to like, and he does not disappoint — these kids curse mightily, smoke cigarettes, take drugs, drink to oblivion, have sex, and, worst of all, tear each other down without mercy. Under the direction of Frannie Shepherd-Bates, what starts out as a laugh-out-loud parody grows savagely, realistically brutal, and rings sadly true to the teenage experience.

The play begins just after CB's treasured beagle has died, and he has trouble finding comfort in the uncertainty surrounding the pet afterlife. This theme serves as a fine introduction to several characters and how their personalities and philosophies have evolved, but it's only the precursor to a more immediate and intriguing story entailing bullying, sexuality, and identity. Some lines and stagings earn big laughs from referencing the source material, from cute sight gags to stealthy uses of catch phrases; Shepherd-Bates also finds plenty of comedy organically, a stark counterpoint to the gut-punch of later scenes.

As CB, Alex D. Hill carries the show well, with curiosity and aw-shucks earnestness. Nico Ager gives stoner Van plenty of hilarious moments, Molly McMahon gets mileage from the drama-club intensity of the eternally reinventing CB's Sister, and LoriGoe Nowak is off-kilter in a good way as the sedated Van's Sister. A fair share of the emotional heavy lifting falls to Matt Lockwood and Joseph Moses as Matt and Beethoven, respectively — one so aggressively macho he must be hiding something, the other visibly aching to disappear. My favorite pairing, however, was that of mean girls Marcy (Jaye Stellini) and Tricia (Kirsten Knisely); the actors play the age well and hit every note of a treacherous girl friendship, ironically collaborating beautifully as performers whose catty characters mistrust and undercut each other. The actors all keep up a relentless energy for the entirety of the nearly two-hour show (presented without an intermission).

This show features original music by Jesse Shepherd-Bates, in which almost-familiar piano tunes give way to electronic influences. In the same vein, costumes by Cal Schwartz give a nice interpretation of the original, then go above and beyond in the various cries for attention worn by CB's Sister. Scenic design by Gwen Lindsay is fairly stripped back, although necessary furniture is set and struck from the small 1515 Broadway stage with impressive efficiency. A few scenes set just in front of the raised stage were hard to see from my vantage point, but overall the show is a good fit for the space, and vice versa.

This production of Dog Sees God is an intense staging of an unrelenting script that stares into the breach of contemporary adolescence without flinching. The story takes liberties with the original characters, but as a longtime Peanuts fan, I wasn't insulted by the interpretation — the chasm between the characters now and at eight years old is sufficient to keep from marring the source. It's rare for art to evoke such a vivid recollection of just how awful it is to be a teenager, but the fine direction and stellar performances here are worth whatever pain the kids' struggles may rekindle.


Post a Comment