LJWorld.com weblogs Centerstage
'Dog Sees God' turns 'Peanuts' inside out to explore teen issues
What if Charlie Brown wasn’t perpetually eight years old but instead grew a little, went to high school and began questioning everything, including the existence of an afterlife and his sexual identity?
“Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead,” an unauthorized parody of “Peanuts,” tries to answer those and other questions. Authored in 2004 by playwright Bert V. Royal, the play turns the characters and the world of Peanuts inside out. Pigpen has become a germophobic jock, Linus is a pot-smoking, high school philosopher, his sister Lucy has been institutionalized for setting the Little Red-Haired Girl’s hair on fire, and everybody’s favorite beagle? Well, the play opens right after he’s been euthanized because he got rabies and killed a small, yellow bird.
Royal has changed the names of the characters to avoid copyright infringement – Peppermint Patty is now Tricia, Schroeder is Beethoven, etc. – but they are all familiar and recognizable. Audiences won’t have any trouble determining who’s who.
“This play hit me like a bolt of lightning,” says Danny Devlin, the doctoral student in theater, who’s directing the new production at University Theatre. “Like the first time I heard The Ramones, or saw ‘The Godfather’ or read ‘To Kill a Mockingbird.’ I couldn’t shake it. I still can’t.”
Despite the designation, “parody,” Royal doesn’t try to make fun of “Peanuts.”
“It’s very funny,” Devlin says of the play, “but it treats its subjects with a great deal of sensitivity.”
And those subjects are broad and intense: teen suicide, homosexuality, underage drinking and drug use, what happens after death, bullying and grief over the loss of a friend. Audiences only familiar with the sentimentality of Charlie Brown’s holiday TV specials might be surprised to find the Peanuts gang dealing with this type of mature subject matter.
“I think the stark cynicism of Charles Schulz is lost in the sentimentalism of the TV specials,” Devlin says. “‘Dog Sees God’ is honest to Schulz’s intention. He had children asking these existential questions about life. Bringing these characters into adolescence and having them deal with all the problems modern teenagers face points to the fact that adolescents are stuck between childhood and adulthood.”
Devlin first came to the play in 2010 around the time there were several high-profile suicides by gay teenagers. In particular, Tyler Clemente’s death at Rutgers University affected him.
“These were teenagers that, like me at their age, didn’t have the perspective afforded by a couple of years of distance,” he says. “The difference between me and them was that their reality, their mythic self, their intrinsic sense of importance about right now was defined by bullying, by an uninvited, unwanted, horrible daily violence.”
But is Charlie Brown the right character to tell this story? Do audiences really want to see him question his sexuality and grieve over a dead Snoopy?
“The script really demands you not be afraid of the reaction,” Devlin says of the potential of audiences not liking seeing familiar characters in very unfamiliar situations. “Otherwise the production reflects that fear.
“The script does a good job of standing on its own. It’s uncompromising, unforgiving.”
And if it seems strange to have characters we’ve grown up with talking about sex and dropping F-bombs, Devlin contends Royal is respectful of the original material.
“He treats the characters with reverence,” he says. “This is an honest, if theatricalized, version of what kids are dealing with today.”
He hopes that’s what stays with people. While noting that the adolescent problems portrayed in the play are taken to an extreme level, Devlin believes it is an important show that has a lot to say.
“I hope this play sticks to people as it stuck to me,” he says. “I hope it encourages the audience to stand up to bullies, to treat people with the decency and respect they deserve. I hope they’ll offer help to someone in need.”
“Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead” runs October 25, 26, 27, 28, 30, 31, and November 1 in the Inge Theatre at the University of Kansas. The show contains strong language and simulated instances of alcohol and drug usage by teenagers. Tickets are available by calling the box office at 785-864-3982 or online at www.kutheatre.com.