You’re Dead Inside, Charlie Brown

Boxcar Theatre has become known for taking on bold projects, whether it’s staging several Sam Shepard plays in repertory with different directors and different stage configurations, or simply turning the movie Clue into a play with a staging reminiscent of the board game. Some of those have backfired: its production of Little Shop of Horrors last year got shut down because of substantial unauthorized alterations. But it’s interesting that Boxcar’s latest production seems to be keeping a very low profile, wit a press release sent out only a week before it opened.

Andrew Humann and Mimi Folco in Dog Sees God. Photo by Peter Liu.

That could be because Bert V. Royal’s Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead sounds like lawsuit bait from the outset—a deeply dark and depressing “unauthorized parody” depicting the Peanuts kids as terribly troubled teens. But in fact the play with the palindrome name has been around for a while now, originally premiering in the New York International Fringe Festival in 2004 and has run off-Broadway, in L.A. and in London since then. (The off-Broadway run sported a cast full of familiar faces from the big and little screen, such as America Ferrara and Eliza Dushku.) So any trouble anyone was going to get into for it would have happened before now.

The characters are never called by their comic-strip names except Marcie and Pig-Pen, who’s now called Matt but is furiously sensitive about his childhood nickname. As far as I can tell, Sally and Lucy are never called by any name at all.

At first it seems like the play is going for pure shock value for its own sake, as CB tells his never-responding pen pal about the recent death of his dog. His trusty beagle suddenly had rabies, and there was blood everywhere—not the dog’s own, but “a little yellow bird that was always hanging around.”  “In a weird way, it seemed like they were best friends,” CB says. “I know that’s stupid.”  In any case, the dog had to be put to sleep, and the play opens at his freshly dug grave.

Every Boxcar production features an entirely different configuration of the space, both the stage and where the audience is placed. Artistic director Nick A. Olivero’s spare set for this one has a dock-like plank floor, with a familiar crumbling, low brick wall on one side, covered with weeds. In the foreground is a patch of half-dead grass with the dirt mound of the dog’s grave.

Olivero also directed the production, and it’s clear right away that physical resemblance wasn’t much of a consideration in casting. With a couple of the characters you can maybe see it, but CB, for instance, has a big mop of hair. He does still always wear yellow shirts, though not with the trademark jagged stripe. (The costumes are by Kirin Taylor.)

Now CB’s one of the popular kids, and we get the impression that he’s been a bit of a jerk—if not a bully himself, he’s a guy who passively supports bullying, untroubled by it. Andrew Humann gives him a deadpan depressiveness appropriate to the Charlie Brown we already know, combined with a teenage new cockiness that helps explain why everyone seems to be into him now. He often stands in profile when he talks, which is a nice nod to the strip.

Played with crazed intensity by Lucas Brandt, Van (as in Linus Van Pelt) is now a pothead who cares about nothing but getting high and free-associating when he gets there—as in an extended, incensed rant about Mexican pizza. His friends finally burned his public-lice-infested security blanket some months back, and of course he smoked the ashes in a joint.

CB’s Sister (that would be Sally) keeps trying on new identities: she’s a goth, then a hip-hop kid, then a pretentious performance artist. Mimi Folco conveys the discontented unrootedness under each shtick, even if the florid dance-poem bit she does is just silly.

Matt, the former Pig-Pen, is ostensibly CB’s best friend, a loud, sex-obsessed gay-basher with a hair-trigger temper, and Cody Young plays him as a repressed bundle of rage. He’s also a germaphobe clean freak who dresses all in white. The object of his bullying is Beethoven (think Schroeder), who’s grown even more withdrawn and antisocial and just wants to be left alone with his piano. Bobby Conte Thornton is hunched over, jumpy and understandably hostile as Beethoven, clutching his musical scores to his chest. He’s also, appropriately enough, a strong pianist.

Tricia (Peppermint Patty) and Marcie are loud, superficial mean girls who mix liquor into their milk cartons at lunch and talk shit about people all the time. Tricia’s particularly obsessed with Frieda (of the naturally curly hair), ranting all the time about what a fat lesbian she is. As gruesomely hateful and menacing as Matt is, it’s this pair of girls who spew some of the most cringeworthy venom in the play. (This is one of the points at which I kept like Royal was getting a bit gratuitous with the offensiveness, although it does come into play later.) As played by Kailey Hewitt and Michelle Ang, they’re also extremely loud, screaming with laughter and derision. Of all the portrayals, these two feel most like cheap shots, but ultimately no one comes off too well.

Playful and aggressive, Teresa Attridge nearly steals the show in her one all-too-brief scene as Van’s Sister (Lucy), who’s been in a mental institution ever since she set the Little Red-Haired Girl’s hair on fire. She’s the only one CB can talk to—not that he’s not always rattling on about his existential crises, but she’s the only one who really listens, even if it’s with more than a little schadenfreude. She may be borderline psychotic, but it seems like she’s the only real friend he’s got.

The play definitely spends a lot of time making sure you know who all the characters are and who they used to be. The expository dialogue is handled well enough not to be too obtrusive, but there’s still a lot of it. There’s also a little singing of pop songs from Nine Inch Nails to Fun, that the cast handles beautifully, although Humann’s on the quiet side and sometimes gets drowned out by the music.

There’s a lot in it that’s very funny; at one point they do a spot-on version of the group dances from the Peanuts TV specials before settling into some dirty dancing to Snoop Dogg. But hooboy is it dark. Things get very, very bleak as the play goes on, and not everybody makes it out alive. But a strange thing happens when things get at their worst. It ends on an unexpectedly poignant, bittersweet note that feels very true to the spirit of the original—which, after all, could be awfully depressing sometimes. And some of the scenes between C.B. and Beethoven, particularly their first one in which the latter calls our hero out for being a lousy friend, are pretty powerful.

For all its raunchy outrageousness and violence, it’s clear that Dog Sees God isn’t not making fun of Peanuts so much as paying it a loving but irreverent tribute. At one point C.B. asks his sister if she’s ever had that feeling that “there are people laughing at you every time you fail”; it was true in the strip and is just as true here, and it’s that gloomy humor that makes Charles Schulz’s angst-ridden tots and Royal’s cruel teens seem like they live very much in the same world. And for that matter, so do we.

Dog Sees God
Boxcar Theatre
Through August 25
Boxcar Playhouse
505 Natoma St.
San Francisco, CA

Show #74 of 2012, attended August 8.

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