By James V. Ruocco
It's not that Charlie Brown isn't really a good man any more. It's just that his entire world has changed. I mean, really changed.
Worse yet, growing up in "Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead," isn't all that it's cracked up to be. It's crazy. It's unpredictable. It's nightmarish. It's freaky. It's messy. It's unexplainable.
And, oh, yes, it's totally, totally fucked up.
Snoopy, for example, is rapid. He's also been put down to sleep after hovering around in the corner of his beloved doghouse covered in the blood of that strange, endearing little yellow bird that once was his pal for so many years.
Linus is a stone head who has burnt his blanket and mixed its ashes with his favorite weed and smoked the living crap out of it.
Lucy is a lithium-addicted mess and mental patient at the Daisy Hill Mental Hospital. Why? She's been locked up for lighting the little red-headed girl's hair on fire. She also claims to have had sex with Charlie Brown.
Peppermint Patty and sidekick Marcie are now trendy, valley-type girls obsessed with materialism, popularity, boys, booze, sexual fantasies and juicy gossip that comes in every color of the rainbow.
Schroeder still loves the piano and Beethoven. But oddly, the "Charlie Brown" gang doesn't really like him anymore. They've also branded him a homosexual.
Matt is completely homophobic and forever shouting "Queer," "Fag" and "Faggot" at boys he deems homosexual. Or boys who are obsessed with giving or getting blow jobs. He's also somewhat OCD and loves to intensely masterbate.
Lastly, there's Charlie Brown. He's still completely loveable and charming. But here, he too is messed up. He misses Snoopy, has problems relating to girls. And get this, he not only falls in love with Schroeder, but they also have some pretty hot, passionate sex.
How can this be, you ask?
Well, unless you're brain dead, heavily addicted to Prozac or a drag queen obsessed with Alexander McQueen, it's pretty obvious that Bert V. Royal's darkly pungent and saucy "Dog Sees God" is an unauthorized parody of the original "Peanuts" gang. And yes, some of the character's names have been changed, omitted or reimagined to avoid any lawsuits or confusion with the original G-rated stories. But there's no problem telling who is who. Or who's exactly fucked up.
In this go-round, this motley crew are also several years older (it's 10 years later) than when we last saw them. And they no longer speak like cute little school kids from an "Afterschool Special" or "You're a Good Man, Charlie, Brown," the original 1967 musical based on the characters created by cartoonist Charles M. Schulz.
Some examples are mandatory, if you catch my drift.
"He was a dog, Charles. They shit on the ground and lick themselves." (CB's Sister)
"Best sex I ever had was when I told this girl that my mom kicked it. She 'consoled' me for four hours straight! " (Matt)
"I wanted to be in Mr. Griffin's lit class. He gives A's to anyone with tits. But, no, I get the fag." (Tricia)
"CB said he'd only go if you give him head and let him cum on your tits." (Matt)
"My parents would kill me if they knew there was a homosexual in our house!" (Marcy)
"Hey, you know what would be the perfect revenge? If you had sex with your brother's best friend. Guys really hate that." (Van)
Yes, oh yes.
In fact, it is this sort of silly, wicked, acerbic, off-handed irreverence that turns Bert V. Royal's "Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead" into the surprise hit of the 2017 theater season. This 95-minute, intermission-less comedy is so crafty, so entertaining and so wickedly in-your-face, you often wish you could hit replay to watch certain scenes over and over again. Or better yet, hear some of the play's juicy R-rated one-liners one or two more times. That's how crazy this production gets. It always leaves you wanting more.
In fact, when someone yells "Holy fucking shit!!! You’re a homo, Charlie Brown!!!” you lose it completely. The couple sitting next to me at the opening night performance nearly fell out of their seats from laughing so hard. And that wasn't the first time. Others around them had similar jaunts of hysteria.
"Dog Sees God" is the final production of Vagabond Theatre Company's eclectic 2016-2017 season, which included "The Scarlet Letter" and "The Last Days of Judas Iscariot." It is a fitting conclusion to VTC's brave, intuitive three-play season. And it is one that leaves you completely excited about what in store for 2017-2018. Trust me, whatever they decide, you'll want to be there. So will I. And so will everybody else.
But first, let's backtrack.
Director Michael R. Mele gives "Dog Sees God" its punch, wit, snap, bite, dazzle and its acerbic topicality. This is guilty-pleasure theater. He knows it. We know it. And the actors up there on the stage know it. But Mele, brilliant auteur that he is, doesn't reduce the proceedings to over-the-top frivolity, nostalgic camp or a 1970's "Peanuts" acid trip for stoners. This is theater. Real in-your-face theater. The kind of theater that would be welcomed and produced by the theater department at some prestigious university, both here in the United States or overseas in London. It is also a work for actors who are dead serious about acting. That is, real acting that sends shivers up and down their spine. Or works them into a sweat of complete, intense delirium.
Like "You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown," "Dog Sees God" is divided into a series of vignettes, which plunge the action forward in rapid succession without any interruptions to the storytelling. Here, there are 20 in all, including "The Listener," "Canis Exequiae," "Nirvana," "It's the Great Pussy, Charlie Brown," "Drama," "You're Invited," "The Psychiatrist in In," "Sailsbury Steak," "Brothers and Sisters" and "The Voice of the Silent Friend."
Each segment thrusts the various "Peanuts" characters into the spotlight quite effortlessly. And the topics at hand....sexual awakening, repressed anger, hormones, bullying, suicide, death, mental illness, peer recognition, homosexuality...are direct, candid, truthful and well-played.
What makes this production sing, so to speak, is Mele's ingenious staging of the piece, his understanding of the original "Peanuts" characters, their familiar ticks, beats, quirks and personas and how they have evolved into full-fledged teenagers long after the original "Charlie Brown" stories have ended.
The word play and comic banter is snappy and impeccably timed. The character exchanges are seamless and well imagined. Everyone is completely in touch with who they are playing and what they are saying. And whenever possible, Mele throws in bits of cleverly-timed nostalgia that pays homage to Schulz and the original "Charlie Brown" stories. I, for one, can't wait to see what Mele does next.
John R. Smith, Jr's set design for "Dog Sees God" reflects the minimalist design of other important "Charlie Brown" productions. The set pieces, reminiscent of the ones used in Schulz's "Peanuts" drawings are quickly and cleverly rearranged depending on the vignette that takes center stage. And the lighting palate, expertly imagined by Tanya Feduik-Smith is an exciting blend of primary colors that heightens and complements the on-stage action beautifully.
Ian C. Smith fills in the completely wild and wacky role of Van (Linus) with such winning stoner/pothead persona, you never once think he is acting. His facial expressions, line delivery (he brings tremendous zing and zest to his many snappy one-liners) and characterization are "spot on." He's absolutely perfect for the role. His big monologue about food during one of the play's big dramatic moments is superb. We also get a taste of the old Linus, which, when the script calls for it, Smith genuinely projects without missing a character beat or nuance. Under Mele's tutelage, the actor always makes the right decisions.
You want Charlie Brown. Oops, CB, in this version. You get exactly that and more with Ryan Shea in the ever-popular Charlie Brown role. Shea successfully makes the most of his characters ever-changing persona in ways that are engaging, personable, surprising and unflinching real and raw. In other productions, the character often comes across as nondescript and wishy-washy. Here, Shea gives CB a real sense of belonging and involvement. He is the heart and soul of "Dog Sees God." His opening monologue is heartwarmingly rendered. And his emotional breakdown and outburst at the play's end is absolutely incredible. From actor to actor, those are real tears. Not something that can be faked or performed on cue. Incredible!
Joe Zumbo, as Matt (Pig-Pen), immediately nails his character's conflicting angst, confusion, sexuality and big bully status right from the start. He also carefully balances his character's humor, empathy, madness, sexual excitement and big-man-on-campus importance in ways that make his every moment on stage count. He is an actor to keep your eye on and one that relies on instinct, which in a play of this nature is very important. One of his funniest moments comes in "It's the Great Pussy, Charlie Brown" when he hilariously recalls and reenacts his masturbatory moments and climax from a very eager female participant.
Hannah Pearsall is a comic delight as Marcy (Marcie), a quirky, oversexed valley-girl type who wears skimpy clothing, loves to gossip, longs for peer acceptance and mixes real booze into her school juice boxes. Oozing just the right amount of comic zing, sparkle and unabashed wackiness, she creates a vivid, three-dimensional comic portrait that is so superbly executed, it completely boggles the mind.
There are many shifts, quirks, beats, colors and depth to the complex, bullied and misunderstood character of Beethoven (Schroeder), but Karl Hinger gets it right every time. We get and understand his love of music, his inner torment and confusion over being gay and sadly, his decision to end his life and commit suicide. In the role of Van's Sister (Lucy), April Lichtman commands the VTC stage at every comic turn, superbly projecting the comic angst, crabbiness and obnoxious punch that propelled this popular "Peanuts" character into the spotlight way back when. She also makes Lucy decidedly human, which heightens the appeal of her big scene "The Psychiatrist Is In."
As CB's Sister (Sally), Anna Lynch is giddy, precocious and amusingly spiteful. She makes all the right movies and is in completely in control of everything she does, both comic and dramatic. Her Goth interpretation is absolutely perfect as is her coming pacing and chemistry with co-star Vicky Pelletier. And wait till you see her big one-woman play-within-a-play. OMG! Sheer brilliance and comic perfection.
As Tricia York (Peppermint Patty) Vicky Pelletier delivers a uniquely individual comic portrait that gets big, broad, important laughs whenever she's on stage. She's perfect for the role of a crazy, fucked up high-schooler and party girl obsessed with being popular. It's a role she has great fun with, much to the delight of the audience who applaud her every move. Brilliant. Oh, yes.
Brash, crazy, exciting and hilariously conceived, "Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead" is one of the most innovative productions of the theatrical year. It has great fun deconstructing the "Peanuts" story of yesteryear and plunging the reimagined characters into a messed-up world of sweetness, craziness, confusion and angst. It also takes its audience on a thrilling, non-stop roller-coaster ride far beyond the gumdrop-colored world of Mr. Schulz, the "Peanuts" gang and Dear Penpal. And therein, lies its enjoyment.
"Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead" is being staged through June 4 at The Warehouse Blackbox Theatre (Performing Arts Center of Connecticut, 18 Lindeman Drive, Trumbull, CT)
Performances are Friday and Saturday at 8 p.m. and Sunday at 5 p.m.
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