Playwright Bert V. Royal's Dog Sees God, which is basically Peanuts set in high school, is tough to swallow; it's not easy to hear comic-strip characters - cherished for their innocence - cussing and talking about sex. Yet while it's offensive, the script is also deeply sad, something the Harrison Hilltop Theatre's current production doesn't quite grasp until the play gets really, really sad.
Instead of playing football, dragging blankets, or chasing the Red Baron, Charles M. Schulz's creations are now doing drugs, having sex, and questioning their existences. And while the likenesses of Peanuts figures are being employed for this show - even though no one is ever called "Charlie Brown" or "Lucy" here - these characters could be the kids who live in your neighborhood, and who play with your kids, and are their classmates. (Royal, I believe, borrows the Peanuts characters for Dog Sees God because they're familiar in their innocence - which helps drive home the play's point that life, beyond childhood, is not innocent.)
Chris Walljasper (a Reader employee) directs this dark comedy, and Thursday's opening-night performance struck me as an attempt to stress the play's humor more than its darker aspects - at least during the first act. (Walljasper's direction seems to set Dog Sees God's underlying sadness aside until it fully surfaces, and overtakes the comedy of the script.) The production isn't bad, but could be more poignant throughout, rather than poignant mostly in Act II.
Sara King seems to grasp both the play's darker and lighter elements, conveying them remarkably well in her role as Van's Sister (whom we know as Lucy). I've enjoyed King's stage work since first seeing her in the Hilltop's The Rocky Horror Show last year, but this is the most powerful performance I've yet seen from her. King's single scene is marked with emotional highs and lows, eliciting laughter at one line and tears at the next. She doesn't seem to be trying to be funny, instead allowing her humor to naturally surface on its own, and in her character's darkness, you pity her, hate her, sympathize with her, and somehow, also admire her.
Bryan Tank's performance as Matt (a.k.a. Pigpen) is impressive in its crass abandon, and he holds nothing back, it seems, as he shouts about sex while repeatedly thrusting his pelvis - which is shocking not only because this is a Peanuts character, but also because this is the man who just portrayed the subdued, honorable George in Harrison Hilltop's recent Sunday in the Park with George. This portrayal, especially compared to his last, showcases Tank's awe-inspiring range as an actor.
Danny White's physicality as Beethoven (Royal's substitute for Schroeder) almost couldn't be better. The stiff-armed White doesn't seem to know what to do with his body, which is highly appropriate for a character on the receiving end of homophobic epithets - one trying to make sure potentially effeminate movements don't become catalysts for more ridicule. White also uses his facial expressions quite effectively, conveying his character's senses of hope, being loved, fright, and surrender. (While White's physical performance is notable, his vocal inflections are often lost in the speed of his speech; were he to slow down the pace, his performance could be as extraordinary as King's.)
Evan Wesselman, for his part, is properly unremarkable as CB - he is, after all, playing "Charlie Brown," who's supposed to be an unremarkable kid - yet manages to work in enough nuance to flesh out the character without being in appropriately dynamic. While Cari Downing tends to play for laughs as the Marcy surrogate, she's the only actor portraying the cartoonish nature of her character's roots, which is kind of refreshing in the midst of the others' angst. Abby Van Gerpen is adorably flighty and trampy as Tricia (short for Patricia... as in Peppermint Patty), Michael Ross Tallon captures the stoner image in his portrayal of Van (Linus), and Annie Walljasper shines the brightest when, as CB's sister, she's in mourning.
And while I was very uncomfortable during the first scene of Harrison Hilltop's Dog Sees God - so much so that (professional obligations aside) I fleetingly considered leaving, considering how disturbed I was by the Schulz sacrilege - I'm glad I didn't act on that thought. The show eventually blossomed into a beautiful sadness that I expect will continue to haunt me over the next few days.
For tickets and information, call (563) 449-6371 or visit HarrisonHilltop.com.
Thom White covers entertainment news for WQAD Quad Cities News 8.