Someday Productions LLC and Pillow Talking are pleased to present the following review of DOG SEES GOD: CONFESSIONS OF A TEENAGE BLOCKHEAD by the Vagabond Theatre Company (VTC)
Trough June 4th
Did you ever wonder how some shows like South Park, Saturday Night Live, Family Guy, etc. get away with making fun of certain people, places or things with complete impunity from lawsuits? It’s called satire and parody. Both are general exceptions to defamation and other suits that might ordinarily fall under the ambit of copyright infringement. That’s not to say that the line can never be crossed – SNL has had its share of lawsuits and they generally have won all of them (at least on the appellate level).
Wearing multiple hats every day can be daunting. Sometimes it’s extremely hard to reconcile all the roles we play with our perceptions and opinions about things. Vagabond Theatre Company, still in its embryonic stages (pun intended) chose to close out its eclectic first season with this satirical parody of the internationally famous Peanuts comic strip by the late Charles M. Schulz. I was truly torn in Sybil-esque fashion seeing it unfold. As an intellectual property attorney (and despite the satirical aspects of the play), I still wondered how the author, Bert V. Royal, escaped unscathed by our legal system. As a childhood reader of Peanuts, I mourned the loss of my innocence (and that of the Peanuts characters as well). As an artist, I believe in free expression and first amendment protection where an artist can express him or herself in any conceivable way possible as long as it doesn’t involve child pornography. As a theatrical producer and director myself, I was jealous that I did not produce and direct the play with its very talented cast. As an audience member and reviewer (and sitting in dark theatres, this is the most important hat that trumps all the others), I thoroughly enjoyed VTC’s Dog Sees God.
The plot involves a series of vignettes all of which are essentially linked in some way together. Despite name changes, the Peanuts characters rise to the surface like milk in a Starbucks latte and we see what they have become post puberty. CB (yes, Charlie Brown) kissed a boy and liked it – well actually he had sex with a boy several times and enjoyed it much to the chagrin of his cohorts, but especially his jealous BFF Matt, who was Pig-Pen (and is now a neat freak and germaphobe). Van’s sister (who in the old incarnation was Lucy) is still acting as a psychiatrist giving out advice, but now she’s doing it in a mental institution because of her pyromaniacal tendencies. Van, formerly known as Linus, has given up his blanket and is now a stoner (well, actually he smoked his blanket and in the truest sense of the word – has become “one” with it). Schroeder – now known as Beethoven — the object of CB’s affection, still loves classical music and plays the piano. He is ostracized by the others and is called a “freak” and a “faggot,” although the backstory for these defamatory slurs is unclear. Tricia York (f/k/a Peppermint Patty) and her sidekick Marcy have become a ditzy pair of Valley girls. Finally, CB’s sister (remember sweet little Sally?) is now a goth who thinks there’s a difference between oral sex and vaginal sex vis-à-vis virginity.
Oh, I almost forgot, my two favorite characters of the entire Peanuts gang – Snoopy and Woodstock. They are both deader than the roadkill you see on the Interstate. It seems Snoopy came down with a case of rabies and in a delusional tantrum rips apart poor little Woodstock. While I can fully buy into the fate of the human characters, I just cannot believe that Snoopy would have been so negligent as to let himself contract rabies. Now, a pit bull under the delusion he was the Red Baron ripping Snoopy apart – I can believe – but I’m not the playwright (damn!)
But Snoopy’s demise does serve as the metaphorical launching pad for a journey undertaken by CB to seek the answers to two ultimate existentialist questions: 1) What is the meaning of life? And 2) Where do dogs go when they die? While the play doesn’t answer the first one, it does provide a range of possibilities for the latter, including everything from doggie heaven to Van’s not-quite-accurate-but -sounds-convincing-anyway Buddhist dogma of Nirvana (nothingness according to Van) vs. reincarnation. Actually, Nirvana in both Hinduism and Buddhism is the stage of peak enlightenment – but I’m not the playwright double damn!).
VTC changed up its previous casting scheme by offering a young, talented, vibrant cast. The acting and casting was as solid as Beethoven’s Moonlight Sonata. Ryan Shea (whom Pillow Talking enjoyed as Randall in Bring It On: The Musical) made the perfect CB. His soft-spoken, subtle passive-aggressiveness, everyman approach to the portrayal of his character really made CB come alive as a flesh and blood, three-dimensional character. Those were real tears he shed at the end! To slightly corrupt Dr. Seuss’ famous quote, “[he] cried because it was over, but [we] smiled because it happened.” Ian C. Smith (a young dead ringer for his actor/producer dad) was positively perfect as Van, the stoner. (Ian proves Newton’s laws of gravity – or maybe it was Kirk Douglas’ – that the apple doesn’t fall far from the tree.) His performance reminded me of both Alex Winter’s and Keanu Reeves’ performances as Bill and Ted in the successful film franchise of the same name. April Lichtman was wonderful as Van’s Sister f/k/a Lucy. I almost lost it completely when she started doing Stephen King’s “redrum, redrum” on her hands and knees in her James Joyce-like stream of consciousness rant. Karl Hinger (who Pillow Talking loved in And Then There Were None) brought just the right mix of vulnerability and charm to the role of Beethoven. Joe Zumbo was spot-on as the germaphobe, homophobe Matt – and we would expect no less since this was his fifth time playing Matt. Anna Lynch making her VTC debut was MasterCard priceless as CB’s goth sister (formerly Sally). Last, but not least, shout-outs must go to the duo with the best chemistry, Vicky Pelletier as Tricia York and sidekick Marcy played by Hannah Pearsall. They made awesome Valley dudettes and stole many a scene.
While there were many F-bombs and other rather risque elements, in the wake of irreverent plays like Avenue Q and Book of Mormon, Dog Sees God is rather tame and housebroken (pun intended). And rather than distract or merely being gratuitous additives, the elements serve to underscore the satirical wit of the play. Despite the often side-splitting humor, the play does deal with important thematic issues like bullying and acts of violence in the school system.
Kudos to the director, Michael R. Mele, and the producers, John R. Smith Jnr and Tanya Feduik-Smith for this well-staged, well-directed and well produced hilarious satire.
The program makes it clear that the play is not authorized by the Charles M. Schulz Estate or United Features Syndicate. This may mean that Charles M. Schulz may be turning over in his grave at the thought of what Bert V. Royal did to his characters. Then again, knowing the kind of wit and sense of humor that Mr. Schulz had, it is more likely that he is sitting with Snoppy and Woodstock discussing how accurate the play is in depicting the destinies of the characters.
Seeing the play comes down to the following tautological dogmatic axiom:
IF: Dog Sees God
AND: You see Dog sees God
THEN: You will see God (?)
You know what, I was never good at logic. That’s why I’m in show business. Forget the tautology and see Dog Sees God before it closes!
*The actual quote by Dr. Seuss is Don’t cry because it’s over, Smile because it happened.
I’m sure this generation is tired of hearing parents say things like I am about to, but when I was a kid, it was a time when we could find a multitude of fulfilling and engaging ways to amuse ourselves; and that was because it was long before the technology explosion which has, in many ways, bound today’s children to limiting, constraining pursuits. Pursuits which in many respects have fractured imagination, creativity, communication, physical activity, and even morality. And while in my youth I commonly occupied myself with outside recreation with other people (instead of sedentarily staring at flat screens), I also talked (instead of texted), built things (instead of playing virtual games), and I read, read, read.
As for the latter, among my choices I fondly remember the arrival of the Sunday newspapers – from which I excavated and then dove headlong into the “funnies” (not that comics aren’t still found in the archaic birdcage liners, but who even buys a hard copy of one anymore?) Among my favorites was always Peanuts, the brilliantly conceived wonderment by the prolific Charles M. Schulz – 17,897 strips ran in all. He penned his iconic characters of Charlie Brown, Snoopy, Woodstock, Lucy, Linus, Pig-Pen, Schroeder, Sally, Peppermint Patty, Marcie, and so many others for nearly a half century and they were taken well beyond newsprint into books, movies, and countless ancillary products. His stories, often told in just a mere handful of panels, delved into psychological, sociological, and philosophical themes surrounding the human condition including loneliness, insecurity, resilience, bullying, friendship, love, loss, grief, anxiety, and hope, among others – and it all has had a profound and lasting influence on our culture.
Schulz began his musings in 1950 and ended in 2000 just before his death; but if we fast forward just a few years to 2004, a young American casting director and budding playwright decided it was time to take the leap from the focus on wide-eyed childhood innocence to angsty and troubled adolescence for the Peanuts gang. And he did so successfully – at just 27 years of age, Bert V. Royal (also known for the 2010 high school comedy Easy A starring Emma Stone) reimagined Schulz’s colorful troupe and turned it into edgy fodder for his provocative Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead. I daresay Mr. Schulz is either rolling in his grave or ROFL somewhere in the heavens – there’s no in between – and the Vagabond Theatre Company has done a fabulous job putting it out there so that you may decide for yourself.
That is because much has changed for the gang – for starters, the beagle is dead. And so is his little, yellow-feathered friend. Rabies ain’t pretty (you’ll even learn the medical low down). But there’s more – much more. Everyone’s in high school hell trying to figure themselves out and not getting much support from their neighborhood pals. Bullies, bitches, freaks, and a pyro punctuate the student body and there’s a whole lotta sex and drugs going on. But as Charlie Brown (who now goes by CB and is deftly portrayed by Ryan Shea) always was, he’s still anxious (Good grief!) and insecure. Now that he must navigate life’s bumpy road without his canine BFF and the fact that his sexual identity and the mere meaning of existence (and the afterlife) has been added to the mix, he’s really got stress. And his caustic little sister (a skillful Anna Lynch) does nothing to help – especially when she’s practically a different person every time you see her – goth one day, platypus the next; and perhaps serial killer the week after?
Van (formerly known as Linus and played to the hilt by Ian C. Smith) is still ever the philosopher – but lately he’s got some good ganja to take him to his higher plane. And since the untimely destruction of his blue blanket, he’s elected instead to drape himself in a drug rug for comfort (or maybe just to hide his stash in the big front pocket). We don’t get to see much of his sister (f/k/a Lucy), which is sad not only because she’s been institutionalized, but because she’s played by the hysterically funny April Lichtman who almost literally lights up the stage. The former psychiatric helper of the group is now receiving her own mental health treatment after taking the art of velaterapia to a new level (check it out – it means hair burning – Oh! Can you imagine the smell!?) In the intervening years, Van’s football-yanking sister and CB evidently had had a fling (maybe after she flipped him on his back), but this must also have been after she gave up on her unrequited love for the Beethoven-loving Schroeder. And this young man, having graduated from a toy piano to an upright, is now known as – who else? – Beethoven. He’s the biggest outcast of the bunch, because, well, he’s gay (maybe that’s ultimately why the pyro gave up on him). Played by a terrific Karl Hinger, this sensitive teen isn’t ready to come out – and why would he be? There are even more juvenile terrors on the loose.
Now I ask you, what would high school be without the mean girls and the bullies? Actually, I think it would be VERY nice, but it’s not reality. And neither Tricia York (f/k/a Peppermint Patty), her sheep-like, bespectacled pal Marcy (Marcie), nor Matt (Pig-Pen), the now germaphobic-homophobe, holds back when it comes to calling everyone out whenever they damn well feel like it. Played respectively by a fabulous Vicky Pelletier, Hannah Pearsall (I must say she was brilliantly cast!), and Joe Zumbo (a most excellent jerk), the trio not only wreak havoc on the rest of the gang, but also become a trio of an entirely different sort (or should I say trois?).
Unlike some very un-PC shows, such as Family Guy and South Park where they literally make fun of everyone just because they can, Royal instead illuminates human faults and foibles in part to expose the ugliness of them (c’mon, bullying is NEVER okay). He also attempts to normalize diversity and differences (homosexuality and mental illness must be accepted and understood); and finally he seeks to illustrate the importance of inner beauty, inclusion, and the value of individuality.
Directed by Michael R. Mele, a self-avowed lifelong Peanuts fan, he did a truly extraordinary job bringing the blockhead and his gang from two-dimensions to three. Each character was so layered, so rich – and their interactions were incredibly nuanced; a tribute to both director and cast. Shout-outs also to the tight-knit crew (many of whom are family) – to John. R. Smith Jnr. and Tanya Feduik-Smith, co-artistic directors of Vagabond and show producers; Feduik-Smith who also was responsible for lighting; to Maig Smith as Stage Manager/Asst. Director; Carol Anne Phillips and Mark Germanese as Running Crew; and finally to Mele, Feduik-Smith, and Smith Jnr. for production design.
This is not your typical morality play, and on the surface it may not even seem like one. But cultural anthropologist Richard Shweder discussed how our judgments guide us, drawing upon “three distinct but coherent clusters of moral concerns.” While Royal has crafted each character as having a very different personal worldview based on their varied life experiences, the themes throughout this work are the overriding elements of the ethics of autonomy (that people can do what they want as long as it doesn’t hurt others), the ethics of community (people must consider how their actions affect others), and finally, the ethics of divinity (people are spiritual subject to divine authority).
While alternatingly raunchy, funny, and dark, Dog Sees God explores all of this in its entirety. It is a poignant look at real-life situations and real people, albeit over-the-top ones. But like in life, some people (or dogs) will bite you in the ass if given the opportunity. This one is surely a must-see, but it’s not for the faint of heart. Anyway, thank goodness Snoopy’s already been taken down – you won’t need to visit the vet beforehand for a rabies shot.