What I love about Dog Sees God is that not everyone will. Amid the safe, watered-down nostalgia so ubiquitous from Cambria to Oceano emerges a play that would turn all of that nonsense on its head. Rather than provide an escape into the past, Bert V. Royal’s Dog Sees God pulls Charles Schulz’s icons of innocence and Americana ruthlessly into the present. A teenaged Charlie Brown is questioning his sexuality, and, after the death of his beloved beagle, the existence of God. Lucy’s in jail for arson. Sally’s a goth—this week, anyway. Yes, Royal has corrupted the kids from Peanuts. Is nothing sacred?
- PHOTOS BY STEVE E. MILLER
- WHAT A BLOCKHEAD! : After the death of his beloved beagle, CB (Steven Freitas, on the doghouse) goes on a quest for the answers to life’s biggest questions, in Dog Sees God. Also pictured, from left to right, are Van (Jared Dawson), CB’s sister (Kat Endsley), Matt (Nicholis Sheley), Beethoven (Von Lewis, at the piano), Van’s sister (Ellen Jones, behind Beethoven’s head), and Tricia and Marcy (Marnie Knight and Ashley Moses, on the floor).
Dog Sees God, currently playing at the Arroyo Grande theater The Spot, is directed by the venue’s owner and artistic director, Jake McGuire. The show, which boasts a cast of professional actors, some of whom are from out of the area, is both wickedly funny and surprisingly dark. The opening scene has CB, played by Steven Freitas, sadly writing his pen pal about how Snoopy died of rabies—and by the way, he also ate Woodstock. (Though the play avoids referring to its characters by their comic-strip names, it’s immediately clear who they’re supposed to be.) Set design is sparse yet thoughtful, befitting the simple but deftly drawn world from which our teenaged heroes spring to life. As CB tells his sad and alarmingly medically accurate story, he crouches on an abandoned red doghouse, which sits alone on the empty stage, looking comically pitiful.
At the dog funeral, only CB’s insolent little sister (Kat Endsley) turns up, smoking what appears to be—gasp!—a real cigarette, and sporting fishnets, eyeliner, boots, and some kind of tutu thing that recalls the self-important way Sally’s dress always seemed to stick straight out. Endsley, as teenaged Sally, exudes just the right sort of brattiness. Her character is, like many younger siblings, loveably lost, though she is at times flippantly insensitive, almost heartless.
Freitas, with his tousled brown hair; youthful, inquisitive looks; and modest shuffle, very much resembles a teenaged Charlie Brown, and it’s easy to see why McGuire cast him in the role.
Charlie Brown, being made in the image of his creator—the late Charles Schulz, that is; who did you think I was talking about?—always seemed to embody a kind of innocence and wonder. It was Charlie who believed against all proof to the contrary that, this time, Lucy would at last let him punt the ball. As CB, this naïveté gives way to restless philosophical pondering. CB’s earnest search for existential meaning drives the play forward, as he approaches each one of the characters in turn and asks for their views on God, and heaven, and what actually happens when we die.
Linus reappears as the gangly stoner Van (played wonderfully by Jared Dawson) who shares Buddhist theories on life after death. Peppermint Patty becomes the snotty Tricia (Marnie Knight), who, flanked by BFF Marcy (Ashley Moses) at the cool kids’ table, snorts that, duh, people go to heaven because the Bible says so—but not dogs, stupid. Duh.
Walking in on a tortured yet well-dressed young pianist everyone refers to as Beethoven, as he practices Chopin alone during lunch hour, CB gets a dose of reality. Beethoven (Von Lewis) doesn’t give a shit about CB’s dead dog, nor his existential troubles. Why should he, Beethoven asks, when CB stands idly by while the mean, wiry, violently homophobic Matt (Nicholis Sheley) taunts him every day in the halls for being gay?
The writing at moments like this is exquisite, and one doesn’t find it hard to believe that something in Beethoven’s heartrending monologue has struck a chord: Suddenly, CB realizes he very well might be in love with him.
Trouble begins to brew, however, when CB, in an innocent show of affection, manages to humiliate Beethoven at Marcy’s party. What follows is a show of teen angst and cruelty so raw it instantly summons in its audience the forgotten traumas of our own collective adolescence.
The premise of Dog Sees God would all be overwhelmingly heavy if it weren’t tempered by so many moments of gratifying humor, as when Sally treats us to a hilariously shitty piece of performance art, or when CB visits a delinquent Lucy in jail, where she’s been ever since she set fire to the Little Red-Haired Girl’s perfect coif (yes!). Ellen Jones, a recent Cal Poly graduate, is deliciously deranged as Lucy—who always kind of had a screw loose, now that I think about it. What’s more, Jones, in a dark wig, looks surprisingly like the character. As Lucy offers her cynical advice, then extends a cuffed hand, coolly announcing “That’ll be five cents, please,” one can’t help but fall in love with these comically misguided Peanuts all over again.
Arts Editor Anna Weltner believes in the Great Pumpkin. Contact her at email@example.com.