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Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead
by Bert V. Royal
Directed by Justin Been
Stray Dog Theatre
June 4, 2015

Chris Tipp, Michael Baird Photo John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Chris Tipp, Michael Baird
Photo John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

I’ll start out with my own fairly obvious confession–I am a Peanuts geek. My online nickname “Snoop” (and hence, the title of this blog) comes from Snoopy. I’ve been a fan of Charles M. Schulz’s iconic comic strip for as long as I’ve been able to read. Vince Guaraldi’s “Linus and Lucy” theme is the ringtone on my phone. I love this comic strip, and the TV specials and movies based on it. Going to see Stray Dog Theatre’s latest production, Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead, I already knew that what I was going to see was not an authorized work. Still, although I sort of knew what to expect (I had read a synopsis of the play), I wasn’t prepared for the jumbled mess of a play that I actually saw. Although Stray Dog’s production values are good and the cast members perform their parts well, this show ultimately comes across as confused at best, and mean-spirited at worst.

Imagining the comic strip characters as teenagers, the story opens as CB (Michael Baird), the Charlie Brown figure, is writing a letter to his pen pal about the recent death of his dog, who apparently got rabies and killed his friend, the little yellow bird. Yes. it looks like Snoopy went rabid and ate Woodstock. After this unpromising, shock-value start, the play does actually get more interesting when CB’s Sister (Sierra Buffum) arrives for the makeshift backyard funeral and they start to talk about life, their identities and their departed dog.  Apparently none of their friends want to come mourn with them, even though CB is now inexplicably one of the “popular kids”, along with Matt (Brendan Ochs)–a selfish, germaphobic jock who hates when anyone calls him “Pigpen”. There’s also Van (Ryan Wiechmann), a sex-obsessed stoner who apparently is supposed to be Linus, and the play’s Peppermint Patty and Marcie stand-ins, Tricia (Sara Rae Womack) and Marcy (Eileen Engel), who have been transformed over the years into a pair of vacuous mean girls.  Everyone’s ostracized their former friend Beethoven (Chris Tipp), based on Schroeder–a sensitive musician who’s constantly bullied for being gay. And what of Lucy, you may ask? She’s here, too, in something of a cameo appearance in the form of Van’s Sister (Maria Bartolotta), who’s got her own unique and shocking reason for not being around all the time. The story covers a lot of ground, from identity and mortality issues to sexuality to teenage angst to fumbling romances to self-expression and more. It starts out with some promising and sometimes excellent moments before descending into confusion and cliche.

I’m not someone who will simply dismiss something out of hand just because it’s a parody of something I love. There are affectionate parodies, sarcastic parodies, and scathing critiques, and all of these can be done well. There are also  parodies of popular works that succeed extremely well in which family friendly source material is used as inspiration for something considerably un-family friendly (like the excellent and hilarious musical Avenue Q, for instance). This show’s problem, though, is that it doesn’t seem to know what kind of parody it wants to be. Sometimes it seems to want to be affectionate, but most of the time it relies on shock value to tell its story. Also, very few of the characters make any logical sense as teenage versions of the kids they supposedly used to be. The only major exception to this is CB’s Sister, a philosophical, ever-exploring artsy kid who seems to have a new identity every week in what is a near-perfect realization of an older Sally. Beethoven, the Schroeder character, is the next most believable, although the playwright has given him a tragic backstory that’s dealt with in a superficial way that makes it seem to have been thrown in as an afterthought for added shock value. Otherwise, I have a lot of trouble imagining any of these characters as who they are purported to be. It’s as if playwright Bert V. Royal had in mind the kind of story he wanted to tell and the character types he wanted to populate it with, and then shoehorned the Peanuts characters into that vision. There are some funny moments, and one brilliant one in which the outstanding Buffum (the star of the show, in my opinion) performs a monologue about a platypus.  Otherwise, it’s just a collection of teen movie stock themes that have been handled much better elsewhere, knit together into something vaguely resembling the Peanuts format, only shallowly dealing with some potentially weighty issues and leading up to an overblown conclusion that’s supposed to be poignant but ultimately comes across as artificial.

Even though the play itself isn’t great, the production is good. Rob Lippert’s set is colorful and appropriately evocative of a slightly twisted version of the Peanuts world, and Eileen Engel’s costumes suggest the characters with their color schemes without exactly recreating the iconic costumes (until a key moment late in the play). There’s also good lighting work by Tyler Duenow, and the staging is interesting, for the most part.

This production’s biggest strength, though, is its cast, and particularly the marvelous Buffum in a scene-stealing performance as CB’s Sister, and Tipp, who brings a likeable, neurotic energy to the long-suffering Beethoven.  He has some good, intriguing scenes with Baird’s CB, although Baird’s performance ranges from sympathetic to over-the-top (at the end). Engel and Womack make an amusing team as Tricia and Marcy, and Bartolotta is memorable in her key scene as Van’s Sister.  Wiechmann is reasonably personable as Van, but he isn’t given a lot to do beyond smoking pot and leering at CB’s Sister, and Ochs does a decent job with a rather generic bully role as Matt.

Peanuts is a work that’s often regarded as simple and innocent, although there are layers of depth that are rather profound, and it says a great deal about the world around us. Even though its characters are children, Schulz was brilliant at telling stories that adults could relate to as well as kids, if not more so. The biggest problem with Dog Sees God is that it doesn’t either skewer the source material or honor it very well. All it does is come across as a shallow mockery. I know it’s a very popular play lately and it’s won several awards, but I have a great deal of trouble seeing why. Although Stray Dog’s production is very well staged and performed, the show itself leaves me cold. To borrow an expression from Good Ol’ Charlie Brown–AAUGH!

Sierra Buffum, Ryan Wiechmann Photo by John Lamb Stray Dog Theatre

Sierra Buffum, Ryan Wiechmann
Photo by John Lamb
Stray Dog Theatre

 Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead runs at Stray Dog Theatre’s Tower Grove Abbey until June 20, 2015

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