Theater Review: “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and “Dog Sees God”
Firehouse Theatre Project brings us Sunday morning’s American comic strip “Peanuts” in two productions currently in rotation with one another: Clark Gesner’s 1967 musical comedy You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown (henceforth, Charlie Brown) and Bert V. Royal’s 2004 Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead (henceforth, Dog Sees God) – the unapproved, uncouth parody that turns this gang of cartoon adolescents into teenage sex and drug addicts that would make cartoonist Charles M. Schulz exclaim “Oh, good grief!” in his grave.
While the storyline of “Peanuts” may come off as deceptively simple (…thanks…Linus), director Billy Christopher Maupin looks upon Gesner’s Charlie Brown with a discerning eye to bring forth this script’s study on the interplay between the sociological imposition of class, gender, and sexual roles and its effect on adolescent identity formation. This same interpretation can be applied to Dog Sees God, except this time the debilitating effects of peer pressure and high school bullying are harrowingly realized: Lucy has turned into a Lithium-addicted pyromaniac and Schroeder’s piano-playing obsessive-compulsive disorder turns deadly.
In Charlie Brown, Maupin, with his respect for the Socratic tradition of “Know Thyself,” fresh and accessible vision accompanied by a shrewd creative team, juxtaposes Sunday-morning’s technicolor “Peanuts” characters against scenic designer Adam Dorland’s unrepentant, brooding black and white playground backdrop to emphasize that these young kids – who for the age of 5 have anxiety disorders like Prozac-dependent adults with midlife crises – are out to examine the subjective meaning of their lives amidst an objective world.
Titular character Charlie Brown (VCU’s Kyle Cornell, adeptly shuffling and despondent) questions if he is really as good a man as his playmates say he is, Sally (the strong-willed Audra Honaker) ruminates on the intransigence of her jump rope as a sign of the futility of human doings, and Lucy (the winsome, funny Maggie Roop last seen in Theatre IV’s Honk!) fantasizes of growing up to be a queen despite it being a hereditary title. Matt Shofner’s portrayal as the philosophic Snoopy arrests Act II with his animated twists and turns and agile vocal range supported by Matthew Landwehr’s rhythm and blues lighting in “Suppertime.”
With the nimble assistance of choreographer Amy Holland and musical director Kim Fox, this cast impresses as they bellow out the musical’s eponymous opening number “You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” Act I’s finale: “The Book Report” – a song I’ve listened to on YouTube multiple times since, and Act II’s closing number: “Happiness.” Some of the actors struggle vocally in their solos, however. But, that’s a minor quibble. Overall, Maupin’s mature, yet family-friendly musical comedy adds pleasure and delight to the “Peanuts” canon – 50 years worth of comic strips that, I’ll admit it, I’ve never bothered to read.
In Dog Sees God, Firehouse’s reprisal back by popular demand, Royal has given the “Peanuts” cast new names (in order to avert copyright issues with the Charles M. Schulz estate): Charlie Brown is CB, Sally is CB’s Sister, Linus is Van, Pigpen is Matt, Schroeder is Beethoven, Tricia and Marcy are Peppermint Patty and Marcie, respectively, and Lucy is Van’s Sister. All the actors from Charlie Brown collide with one another in a high school, dog-eat-dog world where these teenagers in director Maupin’s darker, obscene production snort coke and have threesomes aplenty.
Where in Charlie Brown, CB’s identity crisis centers on if he is a good man now revolves around his sexual confusion, CB’s Sister becomes your resident Goth student with a one-woman act about a caterpillar transforming into a platypus, Van’s Sister is no longer a respected psychiatrist but a branded psycho-path, Linus’s (portrayed convincingly by VCU’s Jacob Pennington) dependence on his blanket has been replaced by marijuana, Tricia (Liz Blake White) and Marcy (Maggie McGrann) take shots of vodka-spiked milk at lunch, Beethoven (an adroitly nerdy Lucian Restivo in Charlie Brown) is going through a Chopin phase and Snoopy has died of rabies.
And yet something’s not quite right with this imagined, vulgar reinterpretation of the Charlie Brown gang: the traumatic effects of high school bullying are never fully realized, and my need for a cathartic experience is never fully provoked. Much of the fault here lies in the dialogue between CB and Beethoven. The central conflict in this piece is CB’s homosexual love interest for fellow student Beethoven, who’s not quite ready to accept the gay label high school bully Matt (a horrifyingly, chillingly talented Ben Hill) slams in his face day-to-day. Beethoven’s motivation in refusing CB’s advances is clear: He’s just not ready to come out. But his multiple interactions with CB in the piano room left me diverting my eyes instead of drying them.
Yet seeing these two performances successively in less than 24 hours – Charlie Brown on Saturday night, and Dog Sees God at the Sunday matinee – sheds light on the tangible assets of a resilient, cohesive ensemble asked to perform in both productions. I recommend seeing both in chronological order because they thematically complement each other, and Maupin, his creative team and cast are to be congratulated.
“You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown” and “Dog Sees God” run through June 25, 2011 at the Firehouse Theatre Project. For more information or to purchase tickets, please visit http://www.firehousetheatre.org/. Photo from “Dog Sees God” courtesy of the Firehouse Theatre Project.
Matthew Miller is the former arts editor and chief theater critic for GAYRVA.com. A Chicago native, he holds a B.A. from the University of Illinois at Urbana-Champaign. He currently resides in Richmond, VA and is a member of the Richmond Theatre Critics Circle. He can be reached at email@example.com. Follow Matthew Miller on Twitter twitter.com/matthewkmiller
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