When you open your newspaper (if those things even still exist) and turn to Charles M. Schulz’s legendary “Peanuts” comic strip, you know what to expect. There will be some Snoopy hijinks, a “good grief,” maybe some “wah-wahs” and most certainly an effervescent feeling of warmth bubbling somewhere in the cockles of your cold and cynical heart. In a few short blocks of curves and lines, it breeds an inevitable level of care and compassion as predictable as Lucy sweeping that football from underneath Charlie Brown’s feet. BareStage Productions’ latest show, playwright Bert V. Royal’s “Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead” (an adult rendering of the ol’ “Peanuts” gang), is a far cry from these sanitized images of childhood nostalgia.
In bold, black lettering, the words “FAG,” “BITCH” and “WHORE” hang from the ceiling of a set already beset by the gnarled disintegration of rusted, chain-link fences and a beat-up, though still familiar, red doghouse. A young man, dressed in a recognizably yellow T-shirt, shuffles onto the stage. He’s still the same sad schlub we remember, but he’s in high school now and called CB. His friends — Van (Linus), Pig-Pen (Matt), Tricia (Peppermint Patty) and Marcy (Marcie) — are potheads, homophobes and vacuous sluts, respectively. Beethoven (Schroeder) has been ousted from the group and left a vulnerable outcast. CB’s sister (Sally) is a wannabe Wiccan, and his best frenemy, Lucy, is locked away at an insane asylum for pyromania. Again, this is not your predictable “Peanuts” strip.
However, this type of wholesale reversal in which whitewashed, American icons are twisted for the purpose of parody issues another type of expectation, the kind Seth MacFarlane would be familiar with. It would be easy for director Nick Trengove and the actors to steep their dialogue in vacuous irony. That would possibly be truer to the form of contemporary teenagers. Fortunately for all (audience and actors), they did not take this route. The story of “Dog Sees God,” rife with challenging material like homophobia, death and suicide, requires an emotional depth and dexterity that, thankfully, this production does not transpose for cheap caricature.
As the unstable center of an even-more-unstable group of characters, Matthew Hannon plays CB with a casual, rational restraint. In his monologues, he is forthwith and accessible at first — perhaps the sole sane person. But as the play evolves and the characters spiral into unforeseen registers of confusion and turmoil, Hannon and his castmates forgo all barriers. As CB’s sister, Kristin Little enacts a fantasy, one-woman show about a caterpillar’s desire to be a platypus that is both hilarious and bewitchingly bizarre. And, as Beethoven, Matt Bratko manages to transform what could have been a performance of weakness and victimization into a nuanced portrait of someone who, like the rest, is intensely uncertain about his life.
It is often said (usually in reviews written by me) that what makes BareStage Productions unique is its ability to perform with such a high level of intimacy. I mean, it’s in the name. But screw the redundancy in mentioning this factor, because “Dog Sees God” reflects the absolute best of what BareStage represents. It is a show about individuals who bond amid laughter and hardship, as BareStage is an institution that brings students, typically from diverse backgrounds, and audience members together for a night of unfettered, ensemble entertainment. After a funny bit about the burning of his blanket, Van (Braulio Ramirez) remarks, “We all have to let go of things from our childhood.” And yet, “Dog Sees God” achieves the opposite. It doesn’t let go or trash childhood. It embraces the care, compassion and complexity that makes “Peanuts” timeless.