According to Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead, major changes occur when members of Charles Schultz's well-loved Peanuts gang reach their teens: Pigpen becomes a sex-obsessed, homophobic jock; Lucy's in a psych ward because she set the little red-haired girl's hair on fire; Linus, having been forcibly deprived of his blanket, is a dazed pothead; Schroeder, as devoted to his piano as ever, is the sexually confused butt of school bullies; Marcie and Peppermint Patty are catty, slutty, drunken cheerleaders; and Charlie Brown himself is sufficiently poised to be popular. And Snoopy is dead -- as we learn at the very beginning of the play -- having torn apart the little yellow bird in a rabid fever and been euthanized. None of the actual names from the strip are used, incidentally, but it's pretty easy to tell who represents whom.
Despite the sex and drugs it features, and despite a sudden and unexpected turn into violence, this play is less a sendup than an affectionate tribute, as essentially sweet-natured as the cartoon strip itself. The theological implications of Schultz's creation were explored -- in the nicest, least dogmatic way imaginable -- in a 1960s book called The Gospel According to Peanuts, which defined Charlie Brown as a kind of Everyman, always puzzled, always acutely aware of life's uncertainties and losses. So it makes sense that Bert V. Royal's script begins with CB on a search for meaning, asking one friend after another what to make of the loss of his dog. None of the responses -- from the ecstatic babblings of Van (Linus) about liberation into nothingness to the cheerleaders' casual mention of maggots to pyromaniac Lucy's comment about burning the corpse -- really helps. And things get even murkier after that, as CB finds himself filled with inexplicable longings for Beethoven -- aka Schroeder.
(Actually, I could have helped with the dog question. When I was six, I was besotted with dogs, though my mother wouldn't let me have one, and after a neighbor's dog died, was obsessed with the very same doubts tormenting CB. We had an eighty-year-old gardener who came every couple of weeks and whom I faithfully followed around our tiny back yard while he tied up drooping plants, cut unruly canes, troweled out weeds and devised ways of keeping me out of his hair: asking me to unknot a length of ancient, grubby string; giving me a package of seeds with a picture of bright-orange California poppies on the front and promising to help me plant them. He was bronze-skinned and sun-wrinkled, and I saw him as the font of all earthly and generative wisdom, so I asked him if dogs went to heaven. Yes, he said, unhesitating. Reassured but still a little anxious, I pressed on: "How do you know?" Mr. Brown straightened from his labors in the soil to look me full in the face. "How do I know?" he repeated. "Because they've got souls, that's how I know." I have never really doubted this since.)
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Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead
Presented by Avenue Theater through June 9, 417 East 17th Avenue, 303-321-5925, www.avenuetheater.com.
Directed by Nick Sugar, Dog Sees God is funny and endearing, and keeps over-acting tendencies under control. Jack Wefso is a very good CB, still a little bit dopey and frequently nonplussed, but warm and grounded. Steve J. Burge is shy, sweet, sullen and perfect as Beethoven. CB's Sister (think Sally) has grown into a lost young woman, sometimes a goth, sometimes a wiccan, and the sole member of the school drama club, where she works on a monologue about being a platypus; Elgin Kelley makes her clear and touching. Jeremy Make has a nice vague presence as Van, and Karen Slack is as crazed and quixotic as required of a Lucy stand-in. Kent Randall is convincingly intense as Matt-Pigpen. Missy Moore and Amanda Earls make appropriately squirmy and over-the-top cheerleaders.
The play has flaws: an inconsistency in some of the characters, the occasional stereotypical comment or action. It's hard to believe, for instance, that Beethoven's schoolmates would be so crudely and uniformly homophobic, or that drunken Marcy would reference the Bible. There's also a bit of useless, sentimental pop-psych, like the observation that school shootings could be avoided if people made a point of reaching out to lonely kids. But on the whole, this is a very enjoyable and sometimes even moving event.