As one might gather from the “blockhead” portion of the production Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead, presented by the Tidewater Players at the Community Theatre of Havre de Grace, drops in on the characters from Charles M. Schultz’s world-famous comic strip, Peanuts. Charlie and Sally, Linus and Lucy, Snoopy and Woodstock, Marcy and Peppermint Patty – I knew these guys. I watched their lives every morning before school for a hefty portion of my tween years. Great kids, entertaining stuff, a fine contribution to my “Things to Feel Nostalgic About” list. Was I so fond of them, though, that I’d pay to see teenage versions of them onstage, working their way through the big high school “who am I?” and coping with the onslaught of hormones?
Yes, absolutely, pretty much every time, because Bert V. Royal did not write some cheesy after-school special about developing bodies and strange new urges, using these recognizable characters as mere vehicles for the drama. He scooped Charlie and company, emblems of the perennial childhood we in the real world could never hope to have, and scrubbed them down with sandpaper. “Gritty” is definitely one word for Dog Sees God. “Funny” is another, it’s not the feel-good comedy of the year. At the Community Theatre of Havre de Grace, the cast neither shied away from the vulgar realness of the piece nor relied upon its scandalous nature alone to carry the show.
Mahoney provided much of the comic relief during the many tense moments of the play, but he didn’t allow his character to be a 2-D “funny guy.”
Dog Sees God is a play in twenty-two brief scenes. We absorb the plot and heart of the story through real-time events at school, through the letters CB writes alone in his room, and through theatrical performance (meta!). In the wake of a personal tragedy, CB tries to revive correspondence with the pen pal of his youth with the desperate hope that somebody out there understands why he’s shaken down to his foundations. Undeterred by the lack of response, the teen continues to send word of his life, and how the people of his earlier days now stand in relation both to him and to themselves.
Linus is no more – now it’s Van, a harmless marijuana enthusiast in the signature stoner poncho. His sister Lucy was recently branded a threat to society, and spends most of her time in solitary confinement. The unequal power distribution within the Peppermint Patty-Marcy relationship shows no signs of shifting: Marcy still plays second fiddle to her “best friend” Trish. These four, along with a very alpha guy named Matt, are top dogs at school. Sally is too ridiculous with her near-daily persona changes to be tolerated in the upper echelons of high school society, so she’s on the outskirts. Her life on the fringe is lovably peculiar; the same cannot be said of Schroeder. The child prodigy has become a social pariah because of something horrific that was inflicted upon him. Each day is an endurance test for the boy now known as Beethoven; the only solace to be found is in the music room during lunch.
Music is the site where Beethoven and ex-friend CB intersect again, each identifying with the pain in Chopin’s music. After a touchy start, their connection rekindles, and a few interesting new elements make themselves known. I don’t want to hint at the pinnacle, or the very end. You’ll have to fill in the gaps for yourself. I’ll just say that Royal wrote a powerful, seemingly simple script that I really respect.
Tammy Crisp in the role of CB’s sister was fantastic. Of all the actors, it appeared she explored the potential of the lines the most. Her good comedic timing, energy, and willingness to go all out did not go unappreciated. I would have loved to be a fly on the wall when she was coming up with her routine for the first platypus monologue (if you see it, you’ll know to what I am referring). Dickie C. Mahoney, clearly channeling Keanu Reeves, was an excellent choice for the role of Van. Mahoney provided much of the comic relief during the many tense moments of the play, but he didn’t allow his character to be a 2-D “funny guy.” Van was fleshed out.
Chad La Fleur (Matt) made a great vessel for so many ugly attitudes in the world. The venom he spewed was appropriately painful to hear, what with the suicides of Tyler Clementi and many other bullied individuals still fresh in the mind. Tisch School graduate Brandi Elizabeth Brown presented an intriguing, multi-faceted Lucy. The audience found themselves wishing there were more scenes involving her, but of course there can only be a dash of satisfying human connection for CB. Denise Rogers (Tricia) and Sarah Allyn Collier (Marcy) clearly had fun with their roles, which was good to see. Their execution of the final moments of “Scene 12: The Hangover” – in which the girls vocally acknowledge that their friendship is based on hollowly stroking each other’s egos – was superb.
I’ve liked this play for a while now and read the script a few times. CB strikes me as an incredibly difficult role to pull off. It’s so easy for the main character to seem ill-defined against the backdrop of all those dynamic characters smoking up, having threesomes, trying to mount a one-woman show, setting hair on fire. The actor has to come up with a detailed back story and live it. Robert W. Oppel performed admirably as CB, and I applaud him. He clearly expected a lot of himself. I do feel that when CB reached the end of his rope with his friends, though, he actually had a length or two of rope left. Similarly, I felt that Beethoven’s (Charles Johnson) sense of true urgency lagged at times. Again, though, I commend the lead actors.
The set – constructed by Laurie Starkey, Todd Starkey, and Janet Dill – was just what it needed to be. What more do you need to convey “high school music room” than one of those cheaper wooden pianos and a few stools? A simple long table signaled that we had moved the action to the cafeteria, and CB’s writing desk at home was consistently positioned on the left wing of the stage. Set items were moved safely and efficiently. Stark emptiness is a major overlying theme of this play; I think it’s only appropriate that the set look none too cozy.
Playing music to entertain the audience during transitions can really cheapen a show. Gladly, the brief segments of songs like “Because I Got High” by Afroman did not seem to have that effect. Soundboard Operator Ken Williamson did a great job handling the demands of Dog Sees God. Costuming by Mahoney lent itself well to the show. The long pink fabric proved an excellent prop in the first platypus monologue.
Director Laurie Starkey crafted a production audiences could engage with. Someone looking to get their feet wet in the material could do much worse than to attend the Tidewater Players production.
Running Time: 1 hour and 45 minutes, roughly. There is no intermission.
Advisory: Recommended for ages 15+ due to strong language, and sexual references.
Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead plays through September 30th at the Tidewater Players, Havre de Grace Opera Hall (second floor), located at 121 N Union Avenue, Havre de Grace, MD 21078. For more information and tickets visit online.