Monday, March 25, 2013

Welcome to Columbine, Charlie Brown

Peanuts meets Glee - and Columbine.  Photo(s): Debut Cinematic/Karen Ladany

I don't think the Charles Schulz estate (much less United Features Syndicate!) looks kindly on Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead, Bert V. Royal's foul-mouthed parody/paean to Peanuts, which imagines the whole gang as dysfunctional teens in some millennial high school hell.  Thus the names of the characters have all been changed to protect their innocent, earlier incarnations - the only clue (at first) that we're watching a kind of Charlie Brown Columbine Special lies in the lead's tell-tale initials - "C.B."  But gradually we realize that, yes, his buddy "Van" is what you'd get if Linus traded in his blanket for a bong, and "Matt" is lot like Pigpen with some Vanilla Ice attitude, and "Beethoven" could be Schroeder if his Dad had molested him on their baby grand.

We also begin to wonder whether Schulz himself (as opposed to his heirs) might not be able to see the bitter joke at the bottom of Royal's conceit: that the "good grief" which made the Peanuts crew so adorable has metastasized into a litany of addictions and abuses that poignant winsomeness could never keep at bay.  These kids need help, and desperately - but there aren't any adults to be found in their strangely empty landscape - just the usual muted trombones.  To give you some idea of just how bad things are for this crew, Dog Meets God opens with a rabid Snoopy tearing Woodstock limb from limb (or wing from wing).  And things don't get much better from there.

The first Peanuts comic premiered in nine newspapers on Oct. 2, 1950

C.B. is now (a bit improbably) a jock who sits at the cool table in the cafeteria - but inside, he's still sensitive, and this trauma sends him trotting from character to character, wondering "Do all dogs go to heaven?" just as he might have when he made his debut in 1950 (yes, it has taken these kids a long time to get to high school).  He finds little support in his existential crisis, however, because everyone else is battling some other, more clinical crisis - Sally has gone goth and Linus (now "Van") is a pothead, while Schroeder ("Beethoven") is struggling with his sexual identity - and if Pigpen ("Matt") now has the manners of a pig, he has likewise developed an obsessive-compulsive hygiene disorder.

Michael Underhill as "C.B." in crisis.
All these foibles are set up for ridicule as well as sympathy (except for the crass braying of the "mean girls" that Peppermint Patty and Marcie have become, which is pretty much ridiculed throughout). But if Royal sometimes draws his characters with crayons, still - they are cartoons, and his strokes are broadly accurate, even if some of his observations sound amplified from second-hand sources (perhaps tellingly, the playwright himself was home schooled - he never actually attended high school).

Likewise the plot - which begins to center on C.B.'s and Beethoven's possibly-romantic relationship - feels slightly recycled (although to be fair, Dog Sees God was written well before the premiere of Glee).  But you can't deny it's punchy, and potently mixes millennial concerns over bullying with a double shot of gay fantasy (What if the captain of the football team was gay, but didn't know it?? OMG!!)

Happily, at Happy Medium, sexy fringe mainstay Michael Underhill (above right) throws himself into C.B.'s heartbreak with almost frightening conviction, and gets fearless support from an ensemble that rarely opts for subtlety, but also rarely drops the ball, and keeps the satiric electricity crackling on stage. Kiki Samko nails poor Sally's desperately bad dance performances, and Joey C. Pelletier, through a poignant strategy of self-containment, makes Schroeder/Beethoven's sexual indecision quite believable; meanwhile Nick Miller seems unafraid of any and all political correctness in his hilarious turn as Matt/Pigpen.  Audrey Lynn Sylvia and Lesley Anne Moreau were likewise a scream (sometimes a screech) as "Tricia" and "Marcy," while Mikey DiLoreto made the most of Linus/Van's hazy philosophizing.  Indeed, only director Lizette M. Morris's own turn, as an updated "Lucy," was subdued - perhaps too subdued, given that Lucy is in rehab after setting the hair of the "Little Red-Haired Girl" ablaze (Morris was right to go for contrast, but some weird spark should still be flickering in Lucy's eyes).  Aside from that small misstep, I'd argue this is the best showing from Happy Medium in some time; a punchy script and strong ensemble, matched with an effectively scrappy (if minimal) production, means this intrepid fringe outfit is looking at a hit.

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