Though not meant for an easily offended audience, Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead was a fascinating look at the hardships of high school and the dark realities our beloved childhood characters might face there.
This Little Theatre of Alexandria production was presented at the Capital Fringe Festival, an event designed to give lesser known actors and works their deserved time at center-stage. Appropriately, Dog Sees God was significantly edgier than the average production by Alexandrias own little playhouse.
The story reveals with poignancy what becomes of the characters from the popular Peanuts comic strip when they move on to high school. While their names have been changed to avoid copyright infringement, it was not difficult to identify Pigpen in Matt (Shawn G. Byers), Linus in Van (Silvano Melgar), Schroeder in Beethoven (Keith J. Miller) or, of course, Charlie Brown in C.B. (Patrick M. Doneghy).
Dog Sees God begins with the death of one of the strips undying characters: Snoopy. This is just the first of a number of changes for the Peanuts clan that seem utterly impossible in the context of the comic, but disturbingly believable when the frame is shifted to real life.
Snoopys death leads C.B. to question the existence of an afterlife. As he encounters friend after familiar friend, he asks them what they believe, and the audience learns what has become of its beloved childhood characters. They have grown (devolved?) into the typical high school cast of characters: The potheads, the jocks, the cheerleaders and the outcasts.
Finding no comfort in his existential crisis with his friends, C.B. wanders into the music room to talk to Beethoven, the school outcast whom he and Matt have been tormenting for years. Their encounter leads to dramatic results for the entire cast of characters, forcing the high schoolers to face the realities of open sexuality, bullying and suicide.
Dog Sees God explores both possibility for change and its potentially tragic consequences. While at times it leans a little heavily on high school stereotypes and Peanuts references for its humor, the production is genuinely funny, a real accomplishment in a very dark play.
The Peanuts characters, like so many high school students, are cruel because they are afraid, and never crueler than when they have something to hide. C.B. tries, in his well-intentioned and ineffectual way, to break out of the mold and be himself. The mixed results of his actions are sad, but realistic.
While it was a bit jarring to see high school students played by actors who were mostly in their 20s or older, the acting was well thought out and compelling. Initially the characters seemed too stereotyped to be believable, but when the play took a more serious turn they each revealed more complex personalities.
Vans Sister (Jennifer Finch), the new incarnation of Lucy, is surprisingly sympathetic. The doctor is still in, and she encourages C.B. in his attempt at independence. She deceives the audience (as does C.B.) with her myriad reasons for why she set the little redheaded girls hair on fire. Finch has incredible stage presence, making her single scene one of the most memorable of the play. She regards C.B. with affection and leaves him with good advice, even if she still calls him a blockhead.
Matt (Byers) spends a good portion of the play enraged a challenging role. Byers emotions seem genuine, which is key to making the climax of the play believable. When Matt finally explodes, it is the culmination of a fuse that has been burning throughout the play before the audiences eyes.
It is easy to empathize with C.B. As his emotions ricochet from euphoria to grief, the audience experiences both his hopes and his helpless anger. The audience faces a startling shift in perspective when he asks his sister (Allison S. Galen) if she ever feels like somewhere, someone is laughing every time you fail. It is with C.B. that the play finds its hopeful conclusion, which seems impossible after yet another unanticipated death.
In the letter that completes the play, a voice from nowhere offers C.B. what he really needs not answers, but the assurance that he can face whatever happens.
The letter also gives C.B. what we all had in that part of childhood when we watched Peanuts: The faith that somewhere, somehow, everything is all right.
Dog Sees God is playing through July 24 at Redrum, 612 L Street NW, Washington, D.C. For more information, call (703) 683-0496 or visit www.thelittletheatre.com.