By D. A. Blackburn
Snoopy is dead. So is Woodstock. And not just because their creator, Charles M. Schulz, moved on to the great comic strip in the sky back in February 2000. In “Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead,” the latest offering of Detroit’s Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company, the beagle has buried his last bone – and this isn’t even the most jarring revelation to come out of Bert V. Royal’s script.
The play, which debuted at the New York International Fringe Festival in 2004, brings to life a familiar cast of characters – The Peanuts gang (sort of) – and in the spirit of many a cartoon before, it does so with a strong, and ultimately uplifting, message about youth. Schulz’s wholesome offerings, however, were never as relevant as the “unauthorized parody” that is “Dog Sees God.”
Royal has made some notable changes. In addition to putting Snoopy down, he’s aged his characters and changed their names slightly (for legal reasons), and shifted the action from the baseball diamond and the pumpkin patch to the angst-filled hallways of high school. These adjustments provide license, and breathing room, to tackle the big issues.
The play opens to find CB (Charlie Brown) composing a letter to a long forgotten – and non-reciprocal – pen pal. His parents have just euthanized his beagle, after the dog contracted rabies and killed his feathered companion. But this, it seems, is the least of his troubles. His faith is in question. He’s confused about his sexuality. (Good grief! Charlie Brown might be gay!) Alcohol and drugs seem to surround him. And his friendships are changing rapidly. He is the typical, awkward American teen.
The script, which is at once familiar and fresh, leaves little question as to how the work took New York and now the greater theater community by storm. It’s funny, thoughtful and brash enough (read profane, filled with rampant drug use and sexual references) to break out of the comic strip mold that spawned it.
Staged at Detroit’s 1515 Broadway, Magenta Giraffe’s production of “Dog Sees God” has a lot going for it. Gwen Lindsay’s minimalist sets are a nice fit to the black-box space, and coupled with colorful costuming by Cal M. Schwartz and stage direction by Frannie Shepherd-Bates, the play has the look and feel of a comic strip come to life. Original music by Jesse Shepherd-Bates, too, adds a flair reminiscent of the well-worn cartoons – when you can hear it over the people mover, the pipes and the other distracting sounds that plague 1515.
Less satisfying is Neil Koivu’s lighting design, which bathes the set in harsh, extreme tones. Additionally, the long single act – nearly two hours – feels slow. Though individual scenes are well-paced and set changes are executed smoothly, the work begs for an intermission.
A young, but polished cast give the show a tight feel, and Shepherd-Bates’ direction does much to keep Royal’s verbal humor at the forefront, while also drawing credible comedic portraits of teen behavior.
Alex D. Hill leads the cast of eight as CB, with a performance that is solid, if a little uninspiring. The same can be said of Matt Lockwood’s Matt (Pig Pen) and Joseph Moses’ Beethoven (Schroeder). All act with proficiency, but lack the intensity and conviction that make a performance memorable.
Nico Ager’s turn as Van (Linus) is the true standout among the men, making the teenage stoner an endearing clown with a strong comedic presence.
On the other hand, the ladies of “Dog Sees God” are all in fine form. Molly McMahon’s performance as CB’s Sister (Sally) delights with a tremendously funny and suitably awkward performance of the artsy Goth. And LoriGoe Nowak’s appearance as Van’s Sister (Lucy), an unstable, incarcerated pyromaniac, is equally entertaining.
But it’s Jaye Stellini’s Marcy (Marci) and Kirsten Knisely’s Tricia (Peppermint Patty) who really rule this show. Much to the credit of Shepherd-Bates’ direction, both women deliver performances that perfectly encapsulate the catty, bi-polar nature of friendships between stereotypical teenage girls. And they do so with an undeniably funny mix of physical performance and brisk banter.
In the end, CB’s pen pal finally decides to respond, with a predictably perfect message for anyone struggling through their teens and the issues raised in “Dog Sees God.” Fittingly, and without surprise, that the letter is signed “CS.”
‘Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead’
Magenta Giraffe Theatre Company at 1515 Broadway, Detroit. Thursday-Sunday through March 28. $15-$18. 313-408-7269. http://www.magentagiraffe.org