BWW Review: The Carrollwood Players Tackle Bert V. Royal's DOG SEES GOD: CONFESSIONS OF A TEENAGE BLOCKHEAD
"You know, they say dog sees God in his master. A cat just looks in the mirror." --A line from DOG SEES GOD.
I am a proud nerd and hoarder, so it shouldn't surprise anyone that I own almost every vintage MAD magazine. One issue that I find particularly interesting, especially in the wake of viewing DOG SEES GOD: CONFESSIONS OF A TEENAGE BLOCKHEAD, is dated January 1972 (Issue #148). In it is a classic satire, written by Frank Jacobs, entitled "If the Characters in 'Peanuts' Aged Like Ordinary People." In this take-off, Charlie Brown and the gang are shown at ages 19, 35 and 65. The most interesting was their 19-year-old imaginary selves, especially in the early 1970's, when America was having a major Sixties hangover. In this segment, Charlie Brown wants to form a pep rally while Schroeder, Lucy and Pig Pen are out on the streets protesting the Vietnam War. Linus, now a hippy with side-burns, wants to bed a mini-skirted Violet and uses his security blanket to make the experience more comfortable. And Snoopy and Woodstock engage in a "pot party" in his iconic doghouse.
Bert V. Royal's DOG SEES GOD is similar to that MAD magazine satire, almost too similar--imagining the lives of Peanuts characters growing up. In this "unauthorized continuation" of the Peanuts universe, CB (obviously modeled after Charlie Brown) has a dour view of life, thinking a black rain cloud is following him, especially after his beloved Beagle (an homage to Snoopy) contracts rabies and dies (after having mauled a little yellow bird, a.k.a. Woodstock). CB and Beethoven (the play's Schroeder, now a bullied outcast) get into a romantic tryst, while Matt (the show's Pig Pen) turns into a taunting homophobe. There is much talk of sex with Marcy and Tricia (Marcie and Peppermint Patty), and Van (an older Linus) is a major druggie who smoked the ashes of his blanket. CB's sister (Sally) has turned goth, and Van's Sister (Lucy) has been institutionalized for setting fire to the Little Red-Headed Girl's hair.
The play, which was an Off-Broadway hit, makes its point with broad strokes--what better way to show childhood's painful end than with the sordid fates of characters so beloved that they seem like family members? Our familiarity with Peanuts certainly helps with the humor (the Vince Guaraldi music playing between scenes and an allusion to Lucy's famed psychiatrist stand also underscore our knowledge and love of this world, now destroyed).
The Carrollwood Players certainly deserve praise for putting DOG SEES GOD on their main stage (the show closed last Saturday, November 23rd). It's a fine production with strong acting and splendid direction. I was so glad that a community theatre dared to unblinkingly tackle an R-rated show like this; it takes guts to go outside of the normal community theatre fare (this is a show designed for more cutting-edge companies or colleges). Add to that a boisterous sold-out audience, which cheered the production, applauded some of the lines, and seemed to have the time of their lives with this off-beat, envelope-pushing show.
I just wish I shared their glee.
DOG SEES GOD is certainly ribald and cynical, peppered with sick humor and seemingly more four-letter words than The Wolf of Wall Street. The audience--at least the younger ones in attendance--ate it up. They were laughing, hooting and hollering, at the show's antics, from threesomes to weed-smoking to its general mean-spiritedness. It tries to be fun and in-your-face--shocks for shocks' sake--but it seemed interminable at times. Like a party that goes on way too long, starting with fist-pumping dancing and too much drinking, and ending on a depressingly sour note, trying to find some sort of solace in the direness. I believe that's the point, but it's a pretty obvious point. DOG SEES GOD lacks the joyousness of decadence, and using Charlie Brown and his friends (even though they are not "officially" named here) provided a few laughs but even fewer insights.
Is it an interesting experiment, taking a beloved cartoon icon and making a point about growing up (and scooting by copyright infringements by not calling them by their names). But it seemed disconnected at times. It's not edgy enough for my tastes; it doesn't force us to question who we are or what we have become. It tries to, but it doesn't succeed in this case. In some ways--and this may seem like an eyebrow-raising statement if you have seen the show--it plays it safe. Yes, I know, it tries to ruffle feathers with drugs, molestation, same-sex kisses and frank talk of sex, all with the wink-wink of dealing with Charles Schultz's beloved gang. But it uses these things to get the teenagers in the audience riled up, to garner applause at a filthy line or action. It doesn't make us look at our own reflections in the mirror. It doesn't make us question our values. And with the exception of a couple of scenes, it doesn't make us pointedly uncomfortable, revealing truths in our nature, forcing us to squirm in our seats the way powerful shows can sometimes do. It forces a party on us, and tries to find a deeper meaning in the forced-edgy shallowness, but it just doesn't succeed.
I hear older audiences had walked out of the show earlier in its run (not in the performance that I saw), and I'm sure this can be seen as a point of pride by the show's playwright and the talented cast: "We have such a cool, hard-ass show that pushes the envelope so much that it offends the fuddy-duddies." And that may be the case; the older folks may have been turned off by the language and sexual situations. I was never offended, not once; just bored by the same-ol', same-ol'. I've seen it all before, and adding the Peanuts angle to the mix doesn't make it any more stimulating or palatable. Don't get me wrong: There are several clever scenes in DOG SEES GOD, and some very funny lines, but they never add up.
That said, the Carrollwood Players cast was wonderful. Daniel Scott Dagesse, with his sorrowful eyes, really brings out the gloomy "good grief" quality of the teenage CB. And his elongated scene with Beethoven (an incredibly strong Cole Reiche, uncoiled, ready to explode), ending with a kiss that caused some verbal reactions from the audience, was the best of the show. The entire cast turns in admirable work, including Elsie Michelle Mendez, Emily Cockerill, Samantha Cevasco and Annie Elsie Miller. Cory Weintraub is exceedingly funny as the burn-out Linus character, Van; he's the best stoner this side of Jeff Spicolli. And Carson Schlein is a real find as Matt (the older Pig Pen character). Schlein has such an interesting look; if Jim Carrey and James Franco could possibly spawn a child, then you can bet it would look just like Mr. Schlein.
Thomas Pahl does an excellent job of directing this, keeping it moving as much as he could (Act 2 dragged in some places, but this may be a script issue more than a directorial one). Greg Spiegel's minimal set, with illustrated blank boxes like giant cartoon panels, was perfect for the piece. Heather Cleveland's costumes were fine (I like how CB's zig-zag on his shirt is a far cry from the original Charlie Brown's). And Shirley Overton's props worked well; I don't know if she's responsible for the giant rain cloud that hung over CB at the end, water pouring onto his head, but it's a great gimmick whoever created it. (After the show, someone told me that they thought it was a giant platypus handing over CB, which I thought was an even funnier concept.)
DOG SEES GOD is filled with several great scenes. But in the end, the clever scenes don't add up and ultimately leave us hollow. Again, that may be the point; it's supposed to leave us hollow. But good grief, it took us over two hours to get to this hollowness. If given the choice, I think I prefer the original MAD magazine version; it only took a few minutes of my time to read.