Play pictures ‘Peanuts’ characters as teens

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Dan Collins

Melanie Glickman portrays Marcy and April Airriona Jones plays Tricia in Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead. The quasi-comedy (with serious themes) reimagines Charles Schulz’s “Peanuts” gang as angst-ridden teens. The play continues through June 28 at the Spotlighter’s Theatre in Baltimore.
Photo by Chris Aldridge, CMAldridgePhotography credit

Unless you’ve been living under the pile of rocks Charlie Brown accumulates every Halloween, you’re probably familiar with (and a fan of) Charles M. Schulz’s “Peanuts” comic strip. Not just because it was funny, but because it was the first cartoon to explore adult themes — human relationships, unrequited love, friendship and ennui — featuring children who could spout Biblical scripture and embrace concepts like psychiatric therapy.

“Peanuts,” which debuted in 1950, became a world-wide phenomenon and continues to run in syndication today. With iconic characters that folks from Trenton to Timbuktu can immediately recognize and identify with, “Peanuts” provides fertile ground for award-winning writer Burt V. Royal’s play, Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead.

The play, now running at Spotlighters Theatre through June 28, examines serious issues many young people face today — such as “bullying, drug use, suicide, eating disorders, teen violence, rebellion and sexual identity,” as the theater’s detailed program explains. And it does so reimagining Schulz’s Peanuts’ characters as teenagers (their names carefully altered to avoid copyright infringement).

Dark, modern humor

Sean Dynan portrays “CB” (wink, wink) who first appears sitting on the stage floor writing to his pen pal about the passing of his dog (a beagle, of course) who, in a rabid fit, killed his oft-companion, a little yellow bird. It’s clear from this opening moment that this play will not be all nostalgia- and Dolly Madison-cakes-fueled whimsy.

Not to say there isn’t humor. A conversation CB has with his sister (who is never named, other than “CB’s sister”) explores her quest for identity — from holy-roller-Baptist to black-lipsticked-Goth. “Will you just choose an identity and stick with it?!” CB asks. The joke comes full circle by play’s end as Parker Bailey Steven (CB’s sibling) asks her brother the same question when he struggles with his sexual identity.

In another comic twist, we are introduced to CB’s friend, Matt (Dennis Binseel), whose lunchtime diatribe about the public health hazards of eating with one’s mouth open are particularly amusing when we learn that Matt as a child once “trailed a cloud of dirt” wherever he went. But as Beethoven (Reed DeLisle), Royal’s take on the piano-playing Schroeder, comes to brutally learn, do not call him “Pig Pen.”

Exploring bullying

It is this brutality, the cruelty of bullying to be precise, that is a major theme in this play. We learn that, ironically enough, CB himself participated in Beethoven’s bullying. Actor Sean Dynan is exemplary as he runs the gamut of emotions from guilt to defensive anger to regret to love, as he and DeLisle’s Beethoven come to a mutual understanding and a sharing that is definitely beyond anything Mr. Schulz likely ever imagined.

Adam Michael Abruzzo plays Van, who seems to have more in common with a drug-loving Shaggy from “Scooby-Do” than Linus Van Pelt. Van’s childhood blanket has literally gone up in weedy smoke. While Schulz’s Linus was perhaps the most cerebral of all the characters, Van is mostly hedonistic, in search of a good laugh, a good buzz, and other pleasures only CB’s sister can provide.

Beyond Van’s comic relief, Autumn Rocha offers some humorous irony in her portrayal as Van’s sister, also never named, though her “Psychiatric Help, 5 cents please” sign is a clear give-away. Serving jail time for having too much fun with fire, Van’s sister harbors a long-time crush on CB and offers him a scarf she knit for him. Perhaps he stole away her heart while she was pulling away that football.

Rocha’s part is brief but highly entertaining, as she exclaims, “You forgot your scarf, you blockhead!” while CB departs the stage.

April Airriona Jones and Melanie Glickman round out the cast as Marcy and Tricia (perhaps short for Patricia, as in Patty of the peppermint variety?) who have trouble accepting the budding gay romance between CB and Beethoven. Their intolerance, brought to full boil by Matt, is another key theme in Royal’s play.

Both Jones and Glickman clearly have fun in their alcohol-fueled roles, though their uproarious laughter sometimes made their dialogue difficult to follow.

Adolescent angst

Not that it matters, as what is key to Royal’s play is not so much the characters in and of themselves, but the issues they symbolize (CB’s sister’s ongoing metamorphosis from “butterfly to platypus,” representative of the changes endemic to young adult life), and the challenges they face (the adolescent need for acceptance being so painfully powerful it may move some to suicide).

Fortunately, Dog Sees God does not become “gimmicky,” though it is clearly a didactic play — one where the lesson is more important than characters or plot. Director Fuzz Roark embraces this through having a cast conversation with the audience after every performance (typically a feature of only one performance of each Spotlighters’ production). 

As the program details, “The theatre has requested local professionals in bullying, homophobia, substance abuse provide materials and resources for these discussions.” The program itself includes eight pages of information about these issues, including “suicide warning tips,” suicide facts and statistics, crisis hotline phone numbers, and more.

 ButDog Sees God never feels like a lecture or a 1980s “after school special” where the message is woefully heavy-handed. The passionate, energetic cast delivers an engaging, powerful performance that makes the 90-minute play time fly by.

Kudos to director Fuzz Roark and stage manager Ben Kinder for their clever use of a minimalist stage to create a myriad of scenes, ranging from a cafeteria to a prison visitation room to the iconic brick wall Charlie Brown and his pals so often visited to contemplate life’s vagaries.

 Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead continues throughout the month of June at Spotlighters Theatre, 817 Saint Paul St. in downtown Baltimore. Performances are Fridays and Saturdays at 8 p.m. and Sundays at 2 p.m. Tickets are $20 for adults, $18 for those 60+, and $16 for students and military. To learn more or to buy tickets, visit www.spotlighters.org or call (410) 752-1225.