Our Favorite Peanuts Grow Up in Dog Sees God

Julian Ring, Staff Writer

Billing Dog Sees God as an “unauthorized parody” couldn’t be more misleading. Sure, the premise of last weekend’s show in Wilder Main brings to mind a whimsical revisiting of everyone’s favorite cartoon strip: It’s Charlie Brown and friends, but with drugs and sex and every other social taboo that makes us squirm. Yet when playwright Bert Royal winds the clock of the Peanuts universe forward 10 years, the result takes on a slightly different tone. We are greeted by the morose protagonist, CB, shrugging his shoulders as he moans, “My dog died.” That’s right, folks, Snoopy has kicked the bucket, and one gets the feeling that a whole lot more sadness will ensue. The humor is there, all right, but it’s lightly sprinkled atop one of this year’s most honest and heartbreaking student theater productions.

The show wouldn’t be half the emotional juggernaut it was without its excellent casting. College first-year Evan Hertafeld starred as the straightforward yet conflicted CB, a genuine protagonist who is slowly torn apart by his high school friends, Mean Girls-style. He was complemented by College sophomore Matt Horowitz as an adolescent Linus, now a stoner named Van who balances soft-spoken philosophy with vendettas against cafeteria food. It’s a winning combination that Horowitz perfected with a pinch of awkwardness. Rounding out the ensemble were College sophomore Hannah Lemkowitz as CB’s sister (Sally), who’s gone goth; College sophomore Will Banfield as Matt (Pigpen), now a germaphobic, homophobic jock; College first-year Cole Lumpkin as Beethoven (Schroeder), a gay pianist with a history of sexual abuse; College first-year Becca Cohen and Conservatory first-year Megan Orticelli as the gossiping divas Tricia (Peppermint Patty) and Marcy (Marcie); and College junior Maya Sharma in a brief but poignant scene as Van’s sister (Lucy), a drugged-up, institutionalized pyromaniac. Needless to say, things get more than a little uncomfortable when the twisted versions of the characters we know and love collide. Sex? Check. Drinking and snorting coke at school? Double check. Suicide? You bet.

Adult issues alone are not what made Dog Sees God a brilliant play. Director Taylor Greenthal, a College sophomore, framed Royal’s script in a way that let the larger themes shine through with clarity. The characters transcend the lunchroom stereotypes to teach us imperative lessons by way of contradiction. We realize the importance of friendship and compassion through their absence, and the value of self-confidence as CB struggles with it. The teenage Peanuts are human; they make mistakes, and those mistakes can have dire consequences. We may not identify with any of the problems facing these kids, but the results — rejection, social pressure — are universal. The show leaves you pondering your morals long after you’ve left your seat.

In terms of directing, Greenthal went the less-is-more route. Blocking and set pieces were kept to a minimum so as not to distract from the dialogue, and they worked well. However, a few too many scenes involved two or more characters sitting on that ever-present brick wall; this habitually slowed the pacing to a crawl at key moments. It’s an unavoidable truth that audiences like movement (see Lemkowitz’s excellent life-affirming monologues), especially when things get heated. Periodic drops in momentum aside, Greenthal’s directorial choices were tasteful and effective in making an intimate theater space out of Wilder Main. Lighting contributed heavily to the onstage mood. Shadows cast across half of CB’s face intensified his emotional distress, just as cool blues and violets created a mysterious vibe in later scenes. Sound effects and music remained in the background, neither adding to nor detracting from the action.

It’s tough to explain what, beyond all the onstage angst, made OSTA’s production of Dog Sees God so moving. Maybe it has to do with the director’s note in the program, which reminded audience members to “see this world without any judgment.” Essentially, each actor played two roles: The characters judge one another while simultaneously keeping a connection with their audience that says, “I know what I’m doing is wrong, but I’m going to do it anyway.” Backed by passive stage direction, Dog Sees God added up to a dark comedy that leaves us no escape from the uncomfortable realities of teenage life. Greenthal helms the show with grace and a knack for finding the bright spots among the pain that would make Charles Shultz proud.