Comic strip in three dimensions: gay playwright updates Peanuts

Is Peppermint Patty slinging lumber at Home Depot? Did Sally end up with Linus? Did Charlie Brown ever connect with that football? Is Lucy now a practicing psychiatrist?

Bert V. Royal’s Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead explores the angst-filled teen years of Charles M. Shultz’s beloved Peanuts characters. Spirituality, drugs, suicide, eating disorders, rebellion, pyromania, and homophobia collide in this incisive spoof. The play returns to Florida for a stint at the Breakthrough Theatre of Winter Park through the end of the month.

“It is such a blessing being able to do this show,” says director Tara Corless. “I’ve been advocating that we bring it to Breakthrough since I saw it at Rollins a few years ago.”

But Corless notes that, despite its comic strip origins, this is a powerful and often overwhelming play. “It’s magical,” she says. “These characters reflect little bits of all of us.”

Playwright Royal uses symbolism throughout Dog Sees God, creating a captivating and thought-provoking story Corless believes anyone can relate to. Since it debuted in 2004, it has won numerous awards, including the “Excellence Award” for Best Overall Production at the New York International Fringe Festival, Theatermania’s “Best Play” and GLAAD Media’s award for “Best Off-Off Broadway Production.”

Becoming God

The play drops the trademarked Peanuts names in favor of easily recognizable aliases, and centers around the character named “C.B.” As played by P.J. Gajda II, he is a boy who has lost his beloved dog and finds himself questioning his faith and identity. Through interactions with his familiar cohorts, the plot develops into a story about insecurity, ignorance, uncertainty, and acceptance.

Don’t be fooled by the loose “wicked comedy” label. These aren’t the one-dimensional, Hallmark aisle characters from our childhood.

“Most of the laughs [from the audience] are uncomfortable laughs,” Corless notes. That’s in part due to passionate performances by actors invested in the post-pubescent metamorphoses in store for Charlie, Lucy and pals.

“It literally took me 20 minutes to cast,” Corless says. “These people were meant for these roles.”

Ten years older than comic strip age, Linus (Adam Delmedico) has become “Van,” a Buddhist stoner who smoked the burned remains of his security blanket. Pigpen (Kyle James) has cleaned up into a violent and homophobic jock with O.C.D. named “Matt.” Lucy (Bunny Fitzgerald) is known only as “Van’s sister,” and is the lithium-loving pyromaniac responsible for the demise of Van’s blanket. Despite setbacks, she is the only disturbed teen with a sense of who she is.

“Don’t apologize for yourself,” she tells the nervous C.B. “Enjoy life. Never stop asking questions.”

C.B. also seeks solace from an old acquaintance “Beethoven” (T.J. Parman). The piano playing youth is now an artist besieged by childhood demons and a growing sense of his sexuality.

“I identify a lot with my character,” says openly gay Parman, whose biggest stretch is playing a teenager at 35. “There wasn’t ‘gay’ when I was in high-school.”

C.B. finally works up the courage to kiss and then fall in love with Beethoven. But he retreats when confronted with the reaction of his friends, questioning the truth of his feelings. It is a recurring theme for playwright Royal: Don’t lose yourself in the opinions of others.

Corless admits that the show’s serious tone challenged the cast. She says that choreographing a confrontation between Beethoven and homophobic Matt was intense. Actor James worried about how his performance would be received by the audience.

“I’m straight but I am nothing like my character, Matt,” he says with furrowed brow. “I hope I don’t get hate mail or things thrown at me during the show.”

Most of the comedic relief is provided by the three female leads. “Sally” (Megan Goldman) also struggles with her identity, and dabbles with different religions ranging from Baptist to Wiccan. Peppermint Patty and Marcie have morphed from tomboy and spectacled geek into “Tricia” (Lindsay Pennington) and quick-witted “Marcy”(Megan Borkes). The Paris-and-Nicole tartlet duo deliver big laughs as scantily clad girls who mix vodka with their Snapple, and are not averse to some three-way action with Matt.

Seeing God

Royal says the play is not autobiographical.

“I get letters from people who have performed it, seen it or directed it, and they all say something about it being similar to their high school experience. I usually just respond with, ‘I’m so sorry to hear that,’” Royal laughs. “There are many different things that led me to write the play, but the least of them was anything that may have happened to me as a teenager. I was homeschooled, so I can’t really identify with the experience of high school. But I was a teenager, so I certainly have a lot of similarities with all of the characters.”

Raised in the small Florida town of Green Cove Springs, the openly gay writer describes himself as “an odd kid.” Coming out in a sleepy Southern town was a bit of a challenge, but he describes feeling far more repressed by the lack of culture and outlets for artistic expression. He penned Dog Sees God at age 27, while living in New York, and working as a casting director.

Royal says people generally assume that he identifies most with Beethoven, but that he is actually more like the play’s darkest character, Matt.

“I’m crude, hot-tempered and hypocritical to a fault,” Royal says. “I’m just not a homophobe.”
His understanding of very different characters, affection for the source material, and understanding of contemporary social issues allowed Royal to create an unexpected modern-day makeover of the iconic American cartoon.

Originally published by Watermark Media, Inc.