Rather than inventing something never seen before, sometimes the most novel idea is a reiteration on the familiar. Cog Dog Theatre Troupe took this route with their production of Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead. Performed at Risley Theatre and directed by Sydney Wolfe ‘19 and Amber Pasha ‘20 this play imagines the characters from Charles Schultz’ Peanuts as teenagers in the throes of adolescence. With Charlie Brown having outgrown his name in favor of “CB”, it quickly becomes obvious that many of the characters are almost unrecognizable from their comic book days, but nevertheless they capture many issues familiar to us.
In a moving reading of his letter to his unresponsive pen-pal, CB, played by Tyler Lloyd ‘19, commences the play by lamenting the recent and the horrifying death of his dog. Far from the peaceful passing that anyone would desire for their beloved pet, his beagle, infected with rabies, mauls to death a canary whom he had befriended (an obvious parallel to Woodstock) and is subsequently euthanized. CB’s beagle is never referred to by the familiar “Snoopy” nor by any name for that matter. In this way he, along with the rest of the characters of the show, is divorced from his past. Not only does this accentuate his death but it also jolts the audience from the carefree nostalgia captured by the characters of Peanuts. In CB’s quest for meaning, the death of his pet becomes a recurring theme and the dog’s physical absence is superseded by what borders on a symbolic omnipresence throughout the play.
Having long discarded their former identities as Peanuts characters, these teenagers assume many of the typical archetypes of high school. An older version of the philosophical Linus, Van — played by John Hannan ‘20 — and his wisdom are reincarnated as a pothead equipped with a convenient syncretism of Buddhism and Rastafarianism. Van’s hazy profundity is juxtaposed by the frivolous preoccupations of Tricia/Peppermint Patty and Marcy/Marcie, performed by Helena Kim ‘20 and Ana Carpenter ‘19 respectively, their often humorous exaggerations of adolescent vanity offer the audience a reprieve from the overarching seriousness of the play. Julia Shebek ‘19 brings to life CB’s sister, an adolescent with an ever-changing philosophy on life who is the sole member of her school’s drama club. Her developing play consists of a spirited monologue expressing a caterpillar’s fervent desire to become a platypus. Deeply affected by the tragedy occurring around her, the loss of her innocence is manifested by the change in her monologue; far from the initial dream of becoming a platypus, she now laments having become a person. Shebek’s candid portrayal of her character offers a sincere look into the struggles of adolescence and the immense confusion and hopelessness that often defines this tumultuous period.
The one character that seems comfortable with herself is also the only one removed from the school setting, having been institutionalized for arson. Despite her isolation — or perhaps because of it — Van’s Sister (Heather Vega ‘19) is one of the most poignant characters in the entire play. Vega’s nuanced portrayal seamlessly magnifies both the caprices of adolescence along with her character’s unconventional acceptance of these surrounding changes.
Besides adolescence in general, the production deals with the heavy themes of homophobia and the violence it often involves. The demonstrations of this violence are not limited to the physical but also to the verbal and the delivery of every slur and curse hits the audience like a knife sharpened by the actors’ unwavering conviction.
What I particularly enjoyed about the play is that it is a resonant portrayal of what many gay people experience, both in terms of nuance and in dimension. While the talented pianist Beethoven/Schroeder (Milo Reynolds-Dominguez ‘20) has had his sexuality predetermined by his schoolmates who now ostracize him, CB’s unlikely romantic interest in this social outcast forces him to confront his own sexuality.
Played by Sam Feibel ‘20, Matt/Pig-pen, while a pathological germophobe on the outside, has nonetheless internalized his dirtiness in the form of unbridled homophobia and sex-obsession. He ruthlessly antagonizes Beethoven to the point of suicide, despite the implication that Matt himself is gay and harbors a hidden interest for CB, but is closeted. In addition, Tricia’s behavior alludes to a possible interest in Frieda, the girl she mercilessly bullies. These different stages and variations on the gay experience transform the play into a work that explores narratives of the LGBT community while bringing to the forefront issues of suicide, being in the closet and homophobic violence.
Seeing the characters transformed from their comic strip versions, my initial reaction bordered on horror; the people I witnessed before me seemed like morally disfigured and degenerate incarnations of the innocent group of friends with whom I, and so many others, had grown up. Witnessing the heart wrenching consequences of their indifference and cruelty as they spiraled around in the chaotic vortex of adolescence, the transformation of the familiar to the startlingly unrecognizable furthered the hopelessness that permeated the atmosphere of the play.
But, despite the discomfort that we may feel at having these beloved characters grow up, Dog Sees God reminds us of the inexorable transition into adulthood and the challenges it promises. In many ways, the long gone backdrop of the Peanuts functions almost as a mirror, reflecting with startling clarity much of what we, the twenty-something audience, have experienced since our childhood. The actors bring to sharp focus the various aspects of adolescence; we observe not only pervasive hypocrisies and unflinching cruelty, but also the tender vulnerability that comes from a world turned upside down. In the end, CB’s pen-pal writes an unexpected response, urging him and everyone else to be strong despite the losses and rough times. Mentioning a boy “who plays piano just like [CB’s] friend” and a dog who likes to sing along to the music, the letter alludes to the afterlife of CB’s two departed friends. Restoring our protagonist’s faith in the God he had long doubted, the letter provides a glimmer of hope out of the ineffable losses that befall CB. The emotion of this final scene was undeniably palpable throughout the theatre and the actors succeeded in conveying to the audience this faint, but nonetheless present, reassurance for what may lie ahead.
Varun Biddanda is a sophomore in the College of Arts and Sciences. He can be reached at [email protected].