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St. Louis by Richard Green

Dog Sees God
Stray Dog Theatre

Also see Richard's review of Smokey Joe's Café


Chris Tipp (above) and Michael Baird
There's a reason why our kids run off to New York: to escape the pat Midwestern world of reassurance and authority and myopic self-absorption, in a life spent shuttling between work and the mall. And to change it for something brash and bracing... for reality in its purest form.

And that's what we get here. Nobody runs off from Charles Schulz's unnamed suburbia to New York, but Charlie Brown is growing up fast in a surprisingly dark little comedy. It's beautifully directed and acted (and very modern) following its debut Off-Broadway, in 2005. They're all in high school now and it is, indeed, a long way from the funny papers.

Justin Been directs eight great young actors through vignettes that are often very funny, but which can also reflect the despair of people emerging from childhood and into their majority. Charlie Brown (Michael Baird), as bleak as Charlie Brown ever was, but with his same great humanity, too, is marking the loss of his dog. The now-wise and wry Lucy Van Pelt (Maria Bartolotta) is in the hospital psych ward after a recent episode of "acting out" (which did not involve a football). And life has taken a very unexpected turn for Lucy's old flame, Schroeder (Chris Tipp), suffering from a form of PTSD, after some very unfortunate incidents. They are (mostly) all good, gentle young people, who just happen to be thrust into a brave new world.

Bert V. Royal authored this frequently shocking slacker comedy, in which the characters from "Peanuts" have really honed their introspective skills down to a science. But I worry about his show finding the right audience—you have to be old enough to remember the comic strip, or at least the TV Christmas and Halloween specials.

And then, on top of that, you have to have that David Sedaris/Kevin Smith sensibility that says people are just winging it through an otherwise futile existence. So maybe you have to be over 49 and under 64, I'm guessing. Anything younger and you won't get all the clever character references from the comic strip. And anything older and you'll gasp or groan (like an usher friend of mine did Friday night) when two of the young male characters kiss on stage.

But it's ten years later than the "now" of the cartoon, and everyone's fumbling for some kind of permanent identity. Iconoclasts may step to the front of the line: great pumpkins will be smashed.

Hilarious Sarah Rae Womack is Tricia (Peppermint Patty, now ruthlessly bitchy) and Eileen Engel is great as her second banana, her long-suffering pal Marcy. Sierra Buffum is excellent as Sally Brown, still putting her foot down, whenever the occasion permits, to declare her own selfhood. And, as she's grown, her horizons of self-expression have naturally broadened.

Ryan Wiechmann is a delightful, level-headed stoner as Linus. And, in one of the biggest shockers of the evening (for me, anyway), I suddenly realize I now have to take Brendan Ochs seriously as an actor. He plays the teenaged version of Pig-Pen, now a jock and a stud and something of a germaphobe, but mostly a really hard-nosed homophobe, all with great conviction and fascinating angst. I don't know what to think of this nice young man now, who was so seductive as one of the dancers in director Been's amazing Cabaret 13 months ago, and just an all-around great team player in other shows too (primarily) at Stray Dog.

Talk about growing up before your very eyes...

A dark and stormy night, with loads of very dry humor, through June 20, 2015, at the Tower Grove Abbey, 2336 Tennessee Ave. For more information visit www.straydogtheatre.org.

Cast, in order of appearance
CB: Michael Baird
CB's Sister: Sierra Buffum
Van: Ryan Wiechmann
Matt: Brendan Ochs
Beethovan: Chris Tipp
Marcy: Eileen Engel
Tricia: Sara Rae Womack
Van's Sister: Maria Bartolotta

Crew
Director: Justin Been
Scenic Designer: Rob Lippert
Costume Designer: Eileen Engel
Lighting Designer: Tyler Duenow
Stage Manager: Erin Goodenough
Production Manager: Jay V. Hall
Artistic Director: Gary F. Bell


Photo: John Lamb


-- Richard T. Green

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