“I used to have a dog, a beagle,” says “CB,” in Dog Sees God, Bert V. Royal’s worldly-wise tragicomedy currently in production by the Splinter Group. Charles Schultz’s comic strip was always a bit on the moody side; this play’s premise is to look forward 10 years in the eternal kids’ lives to see how they handle the problems of American adolescence, including social anxiety, sexual identity, and churning hormones. The short answer is: not well. We learn of poor Snoopy’s grisly fate early in the play; other grown-up demons enter the childlike space of Peanuts in increasingly horrible forms: drugs, alcohol, sex, of course, but also pyromania, institutionalization, and a particularly nasty gay-bashing, plus the traditional anxieties about popularity, identity, and the meaning of existence. One is bound to have mixed feelings about this jarring intrusion of headline realities into the walled garden of one of America’s most beloved comic strips—in fact, playwright Royal is counting on it. The results are twisted, fascinating, and as often darkly hilarious as horrifying—kind of like high school.
The play is not associated with the Schultz estate, so the character names can’t be used, but Royal skillfully parcels out enough information that we can quickly understand who’s who. In fact, that’s a major part of the fun; it would give away far too much to reveal what happens to whom. Suffice to say, it all makes perfect sense, in a sick way. Much of it is awful, and a lot of it is heartbreakingly sad—just like life. We see high school cliques, a randy sexist stud, a stoner, and a twitchy bullied gay kid. And of course Charlie Brown is still depressed and asking deep questions, now backed by the intensity of adolescent angst.
The actors’ job is to walk the very narrow line between black humor and genuine pathos. This, happy to say, they do, delivering sensitive, intelligent performances at a very high technical level. Their spot-on characterizations are just broad enough to befit a comic strip, yet with enough subtle shading to make us believe that the line drawings we know and love have taken on another dimension to become highly dysfunctional teenagers rattling their cages. Emily Vitrano and Rachel Zientek give us a plausible pair of mutually-enabling, funny-sad mean girls; Joe Picchetti rather terrifyingly shows us what might happen to Pig-Pen if he was forced to clean up; Brenna Kempf plays a goofy, endearingly wise tween; Katie Merriman is simply unforgettable (you’ll never guess what happened to Lucy—but you will believe it); and as CB, Nate Press provides a rock-solid foundation: as sincere and insecure a young man as you would imagine Charlie Brown to become. Under Jake Brockman’s sure direction, the script unfolds in the same low-key rhythms as the TV specials, and the technical aspects of the show all serve the overall vision perfectly.
With its dramatis personae of quirky young misfits, and its bittersweet tone, blending comedy and catastrophe, Dog Sees God is reminiscent of Youngblood Theatre’s work in their heyday—and that’s saying a lot. The entire production shows the signs of sure and experienced hands working in the background—no sloppiness here! With this, the final show of Splinter Group’s first season, it looks like theater connoisseurs are going to have to mark The Marion Center in Saint Francis on their maps again.
Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead
by Bert V. Royal
plays June 20 through 29 at 7:30 p.m.
The Splinter Group
The Marian Center, 3211 S. Lake Drive.
Going south on Lake Dr., take the third driveway and enter through the door in the back with the awning. Take the elevator to the 4th floor.