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With an experienced hand guiding a production, you can rest assured that any show - no matter its theatrical lineage or how often it has been revived - will be filled with flashes of creativity and imagination. Case in point: director Jim Manning's mounting of Bert V. Royal's Dog Sees God, now onstage at Nashville's Darkhorse Theater as the season-ending production from ACT 1, the company predicated on presenting theater classics for contemporary audiences.

While it could be argued that Dog Sees God doesn't necessarily qualify as a classic now, it can be shoe-horned into that category due to its source material, which with a wink and a nod and a lack of names, is easily traceable to Charles Schultz's iconic Peanuts cartoon strip. Skirting copyright laws and trademark infringement, playwright Royal has aged the Peanuts gang and given them new, but easily recognizable, monikers to examine the impact of the real world upon these beloved fictional characters.

Grafton Thurman

So when we meet C.B. and his cohorts in Manning's exceptionally well-cast staging of the show, they are angsty teenagers who've survived tumultuous childhoods to come out on the other side as troubled, woefully misguided teens who've never had the guiding hand of reasonable adults to smooth the transition to young adulthood. Now, they find themselves wandering through suburbia like some hard-luck group of 21st century nomads who find themselves mired in a teenage wasteland of sex, drugs, prejudice, bigotry, eating disorders, bullying, homophobia, misogyny and everything else they can hurl at one another (and see if it will stick) in moments of anger, disbelief and ignorance. Audiences will find themselves as far from You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown, as can be imagined.

Royal's Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead first premiered in 2004 at the New York International Fringe Festival, and if this new, well-intentioned and winningly performed production tells us anything, it is this: Times have changed a lot in the intervening decade-plus. Its examination of teenage brutality among a group of childhood friends has thematic similarities to numerous After School
Specials or extra-special episodes of Full House or Blossom, only with saltier language and subject matter that can only be described as "more adult" (these kids are obsessed with fucking, getting high and drinking at lunchtime -- I have always wondered what wine pairs best with salisbury steak and tater tots).

Royal's obvious affection for the characters and for Peanuts is evident: It's easy to see how they might be reimagined in his bleak outlook for their future selves. He has each character down pat; in fact, it's as if they've been reimagined in a computer-generated aging technique used by authorities to continue searches for lost or stolen children long after they've been abducted. The result isn't pretty, but it is provocative, and even despite its intended shock value, quite thoughtful in its presentation.

Cassie Hamilton and Justin Boyd

Admittedly, perhaps I have given far too much thought to the whole milieu created by Royal, but something happened during the show that made me delve deeper into the show's psyche than I had originally planned. You see, in the play we discover that C.B. (he's really Charlie Brown, but keep that under your hat for intellectual property purposes) has just buried his dog after a particularly horrific episode (Snoopy allegedly ripped Woodstock to shreds in a rabies-fueled tirade so C.B.'s unseen parents had to have him put down). C.B. - played with focused intensity leavened with an almost indescribable lightness by the remarkably versatile Grafton Thurman - then sets off on a journey of discovery, trying to determine who he is, why his friends are so indifferent to his loss and where life will eventually take him.

Along the way, we see how the rest of the old gang has evolved since last we saw them twirling about whimsically to Vince Guaraldi's jazz-infused theme song: Lucy's (denoted as "Van's sister" in the script) in a mental institution, pegged as an arsonist and wannabe murderer after she set the little redhead girl's hair on fire; Van (aka Linus Van Pelt) is a drugged-out stoner who's always after C.B.'s younger sister Sally (known as "C.B.'s sister") to give him a blowjob (which she ultimately does behind Snoopy's doghouse, which used to do double duty as his Sopwith Camel and now doubles as a sex lair for the neighborhood kids). The piano-playing Schroeder is now called "Beethoven" by his tormentors who have heaped derision on him since his father was carted away by police after years of sexually abusing his young son. Peppermint Patty has apparently outgrown her early childhood lesbonic tendencies to become the town pump now called "Tricia," and Marcy remains Marcy: she's still the smartest kid in school, but she's also been sexually "aware" since being drugged in third grade, which ultimately leads to an onstage simulated three-way with Tricia and the artist formerly known as "Pigpen," but whom is now called Matt, a strapping, sex-obsessed high school football star cum germaphobe.

Hilary Morris

Matt's also a homophobe, it seems, which the script mightily tries to tell us is the result of his own repressed homosexuality, and when he finds out that C.B. and Beethoven might be in love - yes, Charlie Brown grows up to be questioning his own sexual orientation with the stereotypically gay Shroeder - he unleashes a startling and disturbing denouement that today seems kind of over-the-top. I'm not saying things like that don't happen, but if Dog Sees God were written in 2015, instead of the early part of this century, I suspect it would be far more hopeful. Instead, with its relentless reminders of how tough things are, the play seems rather dated (despite an ill-advised punchline involving Caitlyn Jenner in one bit).

Yet while it indicates how times have changed - let's face it, if 56% of Americans are in favor of the recognition of same sex marriages, we are living in a vastly different age than that we experienced in 2004 - if it were written today, I suspect, the ending would be quite different, and the play's outlook far more hopeful than the self-indulgent, overwrought script that will remain frozen in time (until, that is, the rumored sequel that focuses on Matt/Pigpen, called The Gospel According to Matt that was announced in 2014, makes its onstage bow).

But back to what happened last night: a young woman seated in front of me had a particularly repugnant reaction every time she saw a kiss between two men; she jumped and gasped in a guttural way that was embarrassing for her, me and everyone around her who witnessed her response (the fact that she was sitting with someone I love and respect is even more upsetting, in my Saturday morning theater quarterbacking reflection). That, unfortunately, proves the playwright's purpose and intention are both still viable.

Director Manning keeps the play's action moving in a fluid way that engages the audience beyond what they might expect. His scenic design is wonderfully conceived and beautifully realized, with suggestions of broken cartoon panels from which the characters and their stories have escaped and throughout we see the repetition of that world-famous jagged line working its way across C.B.'s shirt used on various surfaces to remind us of the play's genesis. As simple as the set design is, it remains deceptively compelling and somewhat awe-inspiring, along with several other touches of creativity that abound in Manning's vision of the show.

In addition to the aforementioned Thurman, Manning's cast is uniformly focused and consistent in their portrayals. Gina D'Arco shows some previously untapped reservoir of versatility as Van's sister, while Justin Boyd plays the layabout Van with charm and intensity. Cassie Hamilton is perfectly vacuous as C.B.'s constantly searching yet ultimately self-absorbed little sister. Chris Heinz's Beethoven is heartbreaking genuine, while Steven Howie plays Matt with a tightly coiled rage that helps intensify the show's most disturbing scene. Morgan Dorris, as Tricia, and Hilary Morris, as Marcy, play their characters so viciously vapid and cruelly vacant that you may fear buckets of pigs' blood will be emptied on their heads. However, that does not happen.

  • Dog Sees God. By Bert V. Royal. Directed by Jim Manning. Presented by ACT 1 at Darkhorse Theater, Nashville. Through June 13 (with a special midnight show Friday, June 12). For details, go to Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes (with no intermission)

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