Ever wondered what happens to Charlie Brown and his pals once the grade school shenanigans are over and it’s time to face the ugly reality of high school? Bert Royal did just that in creating his script for Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead, an unauthorized parody of Charles M. Schultz’s iconic crew and the first offering in this year’s Late Night Theatre Series at the Fire hall Theatre. And believe me when I say, the future is not a bright one for CB and his cronies.
Gone are the days of waiting with bated breath for the appearance of the Little Red-Haired Girl or wondering if there was any truth to the story of the Great Pumpkin; now, Chuck and his friends are wrapped up in a sordid world of drinking, drugging, sex without emotion (or even much thought), and relentless bullying of the school outcast, Beethoven (Royal’s interpretation of the musically inclined Schroeder). The portrayal of teen life has a certain excess that smacks of a 90s sensibility and reminds me of the original Degrassi Junior High – not the American version, but the original Canadian version that I remember watching when I was a kid. It was a strange contrast: in the afternoon, we’d watch The Brady Bunch, where Marcia couldn’t go to the school dance because her nose was swollen, and in the evening we’d watch Degrassi Junior High where Spike couldn’t go to the dance because she was knocked up. The show ping-ponged between super gritty, realistic issues and lighter teen fluff: one minute Caitlin is mad because her mom won’t buy her some makeup, and the next thing you know Lucy is being molested by the science teacher.
This same back-and-forth negotiation between frivolity and gravitas greatly informs Royal’s show – there are many laugh out loud moments, but they often segue immediately into instances of sobering clarity. This gives the show the potential to slide pretty easily into histrionics, and the cast does tend to play up to this emotion rather than putting forward a more subtle interpretation, but overall the cast handles their reinvention of the classic Peanuts characters quite well.
CB (Robert Simon) is the titular blockhead, but he’s managed to maneuver himself out of the awkwardness of his younger counterpart and exists comfortably in the middle of the popular crowd, the other characters orbiting around his comparatively staid personality. As the show opens we learn that his dog has died, that in fact he became rabid, killed the little yellow bird who was always “hanging around” and had to be put down. His sad attempt at a memorial service, attended by no one but himself and his younger sister (Sally, though she remains unnamed in the play, played by Ophelia Brewer), a snarling tween who is searching for some sort of self-definition that will allow her to be a part of “the gang” and express herself at the same time, ends without the opportunity to really say goodbye to his beloved companion.
Blanket-carrying Linus Van Pelt becomes Van (Justin Moen), a perpetually stoned dunce whose attempts at philosophizing are always done in by his foggy cognition. He’s less aggressively harmful than others in the show, but his disengagement and his refusal (or perhaps inability) to step in and challenge problematic behavior is indicted by association when Beethoven (Isaac Engles) confronts CB about the constant bullying he endures and says that CB is even worse than his primary tormentor Matt (Gabe Figueroa) because CB sees what is happening and does nothing to stop it.
Tricia (the new iteration of Peppermint Patty, played by McKenzie Netz) and Marcy (Kjerstine Trooien), just like their childhood counterparts, continue to be “the lesbians who never were.” Though they are inseparable and Marcy early on even works in one of her signature “sirs,” the two are constantly drinking and talking about boys; only later is it suggested that their banter, especially Tricia’s obsession with her rival Frieda, might be masking deeply hidden homosexual desires, complicating the audience’s ability to see these characters as potential sites of queer validation.
The whole show in general has a complicated relationship to queerness; in a move that again seems to evoke a very 90s sensibility, there is an attempt to portray the struggles of gay youth without actually providing any positive resolution for gay characters. Beethoven, the focus of Matt’s rage and the character most clearly implicated as queer is complicated in several ways: first, by the fact that he won’t claim a sexual identity label of any sort; second, it is revealed that he was molested by his father, tying queer identity to experiences of molestation and trauma; and finally by the resolution of his narrative in the play which, without giving away any major plot points, is less than cheerful. CB explores his sexuality and provides what could be a very provocative space for discussing bisexuality and sexual fluidity, but he also refers to his explorations as a phase and constantly questions or disavows any firm association with a gay identity. Matt’s sexuality is also questioned, and it is suggested that his hostility to Beethoven may be a repression of his own homosexuality, once again tying queer identity to dysfunction; germaphobic Matt is also dysfunctional in his irrational fear of filth. In a pivotal scene, Matt’s role in the Peanuts gang is revealed through a nickname, and his reaction to this name suggests that he has internalized this fear of a filth to an almost pathological degree.
Speaking of pathology, the standout performance in the show, though brief, is definitely Megan Perry’s turn as Van’s sister (again unnamed, though Peanuts fans will recognize her as the trouble-making Lucy). Her tendency to pull the football out from beneath CB’s feet and her sassy attitude have devolved into real problematic behavior and Perry’s interpretation of the character is interesting and deep. She relishes her extreme outsider status, and in her conversation with CB she is dynamic and clearly in control, but there are still moments of vulnerability that humanize the character and, despite her extreme behavior, make her the most realistic character of the bunch.
Overall the show presents a strong message and plays well for the older crowd that the Late Night Theatre Series brings in (the language is strong, gritty, and riddled with expletives – but mostly for the greater good of the show), and there are some really great moments, whether sad, horrifying, or fleetingly sweet. The final scene of the show, where the characters all reemerge dressed to evoke their childhood counterparts, feels a bit tacked on, and the show might have been stronger if it had ended at the conclusion of the previous scene, but it does provide some small bit of closure for CB’s search for meaning and also allows for a sweet if only tenuously connected homage to Peanuts creator Charles Schultz. It is fitting that the show opened on October 11, National Coming Out Day, as its exploration of bullying and coming out, though somewhat problematically executed, will surely serve as a conversation starter.
The show, directed by Dave Kary and assistant directed by Caroline Gray, plays October 11 & 12, and 18 & 19 at the Fire Hall Theatre, 9:30 pm, and tickets are a steal at only $8. You will definitely want to see this daring production – and you’ll want to set aside time afterwards to talk about it!
Tags: Beethoven, Bert Royal, Bert V Royal, Brady Bunch, Charles M. Schultz, Charles Schultz, Charlie Brown, Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead, Dave Kary, Degrassi High, Degrassi Junior High, Dog Sees God, Fire Hall Theater, Fire Hall Theatre, Firehall Theater, Firehall Theatre, Gabe Figueroa, Isaac Engles, Janessa, Janessa J, Janessa J Champagne, Janessa Jaye, Janessa Jaye Champagne, Justin Moen, Kjerstine Trooien, late night theatre, Linus, Lucy, McKenzie Netz, Megan Perry, Miss Jaye, Ophelia Brewer, Peanuts, Pig Pen, Robert Simon, Schroeder, Series, Snoopy, Woodstock