Given that Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead is set ten years or so after the beloved Peanuts comic strip on which it was loosely and unofficially based, it should come as no surprise that everyone’s favorite beagle has passed on. What does come as a surprise is the manner of his death and the surprisingly apt metaphor it presents for the action to come.
CB, the titular blockhead and analog for Charlie Brown, upset by the passing of his dog, turns to his ever absent pen pal and a decidedly more grown up Peanuts gang to try to grapple with the concept of death and what happens to the departed.
Van, a very stoned Linus if you are keeping a mental checklist, waxes philosophical on the subject after smoking a bowl, offering CB little comfort. Matt (Pig Pen), who sees cocaine and sex as solutions to CB’s grief, also fails to help. It should be noted that Matt also happens to be the character with whom the author, Bert V. Royal, took the most dramatic license in order to create an eventual antagonist for the action.
As the action progresses, the rest of the gang appear, having found their own levels of teenage angst. CB’s sister is desperately searching for her identity and Van’s sister (Lucy) is locked away for what are, at first, unknown reasons. Tricia and Marcie are the quintessential mean girls, judging and sleeping their way through the hell of high school. And then there is Beethoven (Schroeder) still withdrawn, nervous, and clearly out of favor with at least some of the gang, but still finding solace in playing the piano.
The script doesn’t shy away from shock or vulgarity and the director, James Bryan, doesn’t shy away from the script. He celebrates and highlights the crudeness and shallowness in a way that some might think is for shock value alone, but in this case works as a counterpoint to the tender and heartfelt moments that lie at the heart of the script. This feeling is helped by the fact that the audience by and large feels like they already know and like these characters. This is necessary because if we were meeting them for the first time many of them leave quite a lot to be desired.
Bryan’s decision to use adult actors serves the piece well. A lot of the lines and scenes in this script, if delivered by actors that were still kids themselves, may have been alienating, and I feel the older cast members really brought control and depth to the parts that young, less experienced actors may not have been able to pull off. It’s a piece that could have easily wallowed in the humor - because there is a lot of it - but under Bryan’s guidance the heart of the piece is never far from the punchlines.
Joshua Jones does an excellent job as CB, struggling not just with death, but with the emotional journey on which that sets him as he is forced to question his own sense of self and emotional truth. Christopher Bernhardt’s Beethoven is immediately recognizable as the kid that is trying to stay invisible, hiding from the reality of a tragic circumstance that has been turned into a weapon against him.
The two sisters, CB’s sister played by Giuliana Mortimer and Van’s Sister, played by Taylor Durham, both deliver fantastic monologues in which their performances invite the audience to look past the- at times- ridiculous words, and to see the soul beneath that is searching for something that they themselves do not understand.
Kameron Peter’s does a wonderful job as the perpetually buzzed Van. His performance is quite strong and he never allows Van to just become a stoner joke, mexican pizzas and tater tots notwithstanding. Rico Robinson’s Matt, who is written as the epitome of toxic masculinity, has no trouble bringing him to life. Each time he is on stage the audience cringes wondering what offensive or aggressive thing he will do next.
Felicia Fields (Tricia) and Taylor Kinter (Marcie) have ample time on stage to torment the seen and unseen kids of the school and they have the Mean Girls/Heathers routine down pat. The chemistry the actresses share is wonderful. The work they put in to their own characters, as well as the characters as a pair, is evident and appreciated.
Costumer Lisa Bobotas did a wonderful job, creating costumes that were referential to the original comic strip but felt absolutely modern. Some highlights were Van’s blue bandana as a blanket surrogate, and the messaging on all of CB’s shirts.
The set design by James Bryan and Heather Shannon called back to the comic panels of the strip and allowed for a wonderful flow of action. Charles Owrey’s sound design was beautiful and the music choices quite strong. Lighting by Derrion LaZachan Hawkins was mostly on point, though I kept wanting the entire sky portion of the painted set to be lit to add to the feeling the the action was taking place inside a comic panel.
Dog Sees God is a very solid production. As the mother of a middle schooler I wish that is was a little less graphic in nature, as I think it is a show that kids younger than it’s target audience would appreciate and the themes present could drive good conversations. As it stands, I would recommend this show for high school and up, but only if you are comfortable with foul language, drug use, and suggestive situations. If those aren’t your speed, I would keep the kids away for sure, so consider yourself warned.
Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead is playing at Generic Theatre, 215 Saint Pauls Blvd, Norfolk, VA 23510. It runs Thursday, Friday and Saturday nights at 8pm and Sundays at 2:30pm now through January 26th.
Words by Alicia Wolters. Photos by JLK Productions.