I first read about author Bert V. Royal's Dog Sees God (subtitled Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead) several years ago. It was first done as an off-Broadway reading in 2004, and the New York International Fringe Festival, among several other entities, had given it "best" and "favorite" awards. Admittedly, Royal's premise – an exploration into the high-school lives of perpetual comic-strip loser Charlie Brown and his friends – didn't thrill me, as it seems rude to abduct someone else's characters and make them do your bidding. I was also wary that the play would be full of cheap laughs by having the gang smoke joints and talk about sex. (And okay, they do that here … but there's so much more to it.)
What I read about the production had been positive, though, and I wanted to see the Playcrafters Barn Theatre's version because I knew that good actors were in it. So on Saturday, I awaited the dimming of lights with a spark of hope – one that was almost immediately dampened when the first words spoken by Craig Gaul's CB were barely audible, even though he was only about 12 feet away. Gaul seemed hesitant and awkward, and I thought, "That poor guy … first-time actor … he has to carry the whole show … and he's not up to it."
Man, was I wrong. About almost everything.
Gaul is indeed a first-time actor in stage-play format. But he wasn't nervous – he was acting; CB is just in a very bad place right now. Directed by Jay Megan Sushka using a newly revised script, Playcrafters' Dog Sees God is packed with many hysterical moments, but also includes an abundance of distressing elements. There are content warnings about them in the program and on fliers throughout the theatre, and Royal's plot involves alcoholism, bullying, death, homophobia, mental illness, and physical and emotional abuse. As such, the play would be rated “R" if it were a movie. (And if you don't like F-bombs, stay the F away.)
Still, if you can handle all that, knowing the Peanuts mythos isn't necessary to appreciate the play. Real-life relationships can change at adolescence, and these fictional kids' former crushes and clashes have evolved, sometimes surprisingly. Knowing the characters' backgrounds, and aspects of the comics and the animated specials, will boost your enjoyment, but it's an amazing, worthwhile experience either way.
I don't mind revealing the horrifying incident that kicks off CB's run of misery, as the play's title tells it: CB's dog has died in a particularly heartbreaking manner. (If you like dogs, even cartoon dogs, you might unwillingly visualize, and be sickened by, CB's account.) He holds a memorial, which no one attends but CB's Sister, played by Adrienne Evans. Formerly known as Sally, she's overly irritable – but then, she's grieving too. Evans enacts CB's Sister's melodramatic, intellectual teenage outbursts convincingly, yet at other times shows much vulnerability. This character is searching for an identity, and meaning, and the dialogue suggests she's doing it alone.
Adrick Woodruff is Beethoven (Schroeder), still avoiding everyone and everything except the piano. Though their character is aloof and struggles to hide practically every emotion, Woodruff is nonetheless singularly appealing as the teen musician, and I could strongly relate to what Beethoven was going through. I also admired Woodruff's piano-playing skills, which I initially thought were mimed (Gaul also plays the instrument live), and his athleticism during several physical scenes.
As for Peppermint Patty and Marcie, they're still BFFs. Emilia Hughes portrays the former, now called Tricia, and Lauren Moody is Marcy (not "Marcie"). These two are given lots of mean-girl things to say and do, and their scenes could have been lengthy ordeals. However, these party girls are hilarious. Hughes was outstanding in Playcrafters' She Kills Monsters; I hope she keeps performing in the area. Moody, meanwhile, is an adept comedian, and I'd love to see her play a more amiable character some day. Drew DeKeyrel plays Matt (called Pig-Pen in grade school), decidedly a party boy, who fervently wants the one thing teenage boys want – and when he's not doing it, he talks about doing it. Though a sanguine child, Matt is now a choleric teenager. His behavior is abhorrent, but sadly common in the real world. DeKeyrel was vastly enjoyable as Chuck in She Kills Monsters at this venue, and is just as convincing here.
Mike Turczynski's Van, as in Linus Van Pelt, is still a calm philosopher (the pot helps), sweet, and a good listener, and the actor makes him truly realistic. Van and CB, ruminating at that brick wall where they often talked as kids, create some of the play's best moments. Before Playcrafters' latest, I only knew Turczynski as an excellent director and lighting designer, and hope he treads the boards more often. As for Van's Sister (Lucy), played wonderfully by Cayla Odendahl, she's mostly absent due to difficult circumstances, but is far different from the fussbudget she once was. (Gotta say: I loathed the two "Sister" designations. If the point was that society overlooks women, why did the other two get names?)
Calling Dog Sees God a parody, Royal claims fair use of Charles M. Schulz's characters without paying royalties. I'd call it a sequel, though, and highly recommend that you see it. With all its horrors, I was afraid of a bleak ending, but it was painfully sweet. I cried. But it was the good kind of tears.
Dog Sees God runs at the Playcrafters Barn Theatre (4950 35th Avenue, Moline IL) through June 12, and more information and tickets are available by calling (309)762-0330 and visiting Playcrafters.com.