Regional Reviews: Phoenix
Royal's unauthorized parody of the Charles M. Schulz cartoon changes the names of the characters, no doubt to avoid a potential lawsuit. While you don't have to have any in-depth knowledge of the beloved Peanuts gang, having some memories of them will help in seeing just how far the group has come, and not exactly in a good way, from the classic comic strip.
The plot begins when CB (Charlie Brown) and his sister are holding a funeral for the death of their dog (yes, Snoopy is now in doggie heaven.) The dog died from rabies and his tragic death forces CB to question many things in his life, especially the fact that none of the friends he thought he was close to came to the funeral. When he confronts them about the questions he is now contemplating, he finds that none of them are as steady as he thought they were and are also dealing with issues of their own. His best friend Van (Linus) is now more interested in getting stoned, while Van's Sister (Lucy) spends her time in solitary confinement after being branded a pyromaniac and a threat to society because she burned the hair of that pesky little red-haired girl. Matt (Pig Pen) is a germophobic, homophobic bully who hasn't quite gotten over the name calling he was the victim of in his youth, while Marcy and Tricia (Marcie and Peppermint Patty) have devolved into catty, hateful young ladies.
CB finds solace in his conversations with his sister (Sally), who is constantly struggling to find her own identity, his visits with Van's Sister, and with Beethoven (Schroeder), the outcast of the school. Even though CB hasn't spoken to him in a while and even bullied and practically broke his shoulder, the two boys find they have several things in common, including their shared loved of Chopin and the pain in his music. The struggles of these individuals swirl around CB until the tragic yet hopeful and even somewhat uplifting ending.
Royal has created an intriguing drama that uses parodies of familiar characters to skillfully weave in modern teen issues of drug use, eating disorders, bullying, sexuality and sexual identity, and even teen suicide. But Royal doesn't spoof or make fun of these famous characters. He has actually crafted a beautiful homage to the children that Schulz created. It only makes sense that the mean kids who would do things like take the football away from Charlie Brown just when he was about to kick it would grow up to be bullying, cruel teens. Also, while Royal uses profanity, grown-up topics, and sexually frank talk in his script, the language is always realistic and never gratuitous. He even adds in a very moving finale that pulls Schulz directly into the piece.
Director Kenny Grossman has elicited both a sense of realism and an abundance of humor from his skilled cast. The play addresses some frank and adult issues, and Grossman and his cast don't downplay the serious nature of the show. While some people may question having this show performed by a cast of teens, it actually provides a sense of vibrant honesty and realistic undertones to have age-appropriate actors playing these high school aged kids. I can only imagine that many of the topics the play touches upon are ones the cast deal with in their daily lives. Grossman's decision to stage the play in repertory with the musical You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown also seems to be an inspired decision, as it gives audiences the chance to see these beloved characters at vastly different stages in their lives.
While the majority of the characters in the play are larger than life, CB isn't, which makes it even more impressive how good Jack Taylor is in the part. His ability to portray how CB feels disconnected and unsure about how he now fits in with the friends he feels somewhat alienated from, while also questioning his past actions, is assured and clear. Taylor has many monologues in the piece, which he delivers exceptionally to help provide nuance and layers, and he ends up creating an entirely endearing character. Lindsay Gagnon delivers a charming performance as CB's Sister, a young girl who is struggling as she searches to find her identity. Her performance number that focuses on her desire to evolve into a platypus is hilarious. Though she is only briefly featured, Alixandra Giordano is a complete knockout as Van's Sister. Her heightened sense of energy and good comedic timing create an explosive and beguiling young woman. Christian Bader is humorous as the constantly dazed stoner Van who keeps lamenting the fact that he ended up smoking his security blanket, and Devon Policci is exceptional as the bully Matt who spews profanity and hatred while also projecting an inherent sense of conflicted sadness. Thea Eigo and Bethany Novotny are perfectly matched as the hateful and ridiculously superficial, though oddly also entirely lovable, friends Marcy and Tricia, and Noah Lanouette instills a sure sense of sadness and pain as the heartbreaking outcast Beethoven.
There is a starkness and simplicity to the play that is mirrored in Bobby Sample's simple set design. Sample and Josh Hontz's projections and media designs provide some perfect cartoon-inspired backdrops and scene titles throughout. Samantha Essary Utpadel's costumes hint at the cartoon characters while also providing nice modern elements.
With an excellent cast and an ending that evokes a sense of beauty in how it ties into the classic words of Charles Schulz and shows how the optimism of Charlie Brown is still vibrantly alive, Spotlight Youth Theatre's production of Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead makes for a loving, powerful, and emotionally rich look at beloved characters. It's a poignant and painful play that is also one filled with hints of optimism and hope.
Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead, through November 4, 2018, at Spotlight Youth Theatre, 10620 N 43rd Avenue, Glendale AZ. Tickets and information can be found at http://www.spotlightyouththeatre.org or by calling 602-843-8318
Director: Kenny Grossman