The extremes of "Dog Sees God" can be off-putting. The early scenes practically pummel the audience with surrogates for the beloved Peanuts characters getting drunk, smoking dope, and snorting coke. It's not long before the crudest sexual innuendoes are pantomimed and unexpected sexual impulses acted on. I had very adventurous high school years but even at their most free-wheeling they weren't as debaucherous (sp?) as this. Charlie Brown seems to have matriculated into Sodom and Gomorrah High School.
But I think Bert Royal does this for more than shock value. In a clever way, I think he's honoring the perspective of the original Peanuts cartoons. As in those more innocent depictions of childhood, a world swirls around "CB" that he only sporadically engages in and seems relatively clueless about. As with the kids in the cartoons, the teens of "DSG" are precocious, but when you're in high school precociousness isn't just restricted to deep thoughts about Buddhism but can also devolve into manipulating people's emotions in order to get laid.
And in the midst of the carnal and chemical pleasures of "DSG," the sweet and simple relationships between CB and Beethoven, and more poignantly, CB and his little sister, are strikingly honest and clear. Oh, they're messy, with none of the people involved quite understanding what's going on, but isn't that how life is? Full of confusion and missteps and messy misunderstandings?
There are many specific pleasures in the Firehouse's production, most of them having to do with the exceptional performances. Kyle Cornell makes a great CB, not the full-blown blockhead he might have been as a kid, but still a little adrift. Ben Hill fully embraces the aggressively sexual teen role; he reminded me of a couple guys I knew in high school who acted in nearly the exact same overboard way. The "mean girls" were an entertaining sidelight and, while I continue to love Liz Blake White in just about everything I've seen her in (including her underwear!), I'll also be adding Maggie McGrann to the list of actresses I'll be looking forward to seeing on stage again.
In the end, the chemistry between Cornell and Audra Honaker as CB's sister sold me on this production. In the last several scenes, Honaker strips away the affectations that have characterized some of her more extreme roles in the past and plays it straight, to great effect. These are siblings that don't always click but, in their own way, they still love each other, and Honaker and Cornell make you feel that.
The technical elements of this production are all solid, with Adam Dorland's scenic design a nice departure from anything cartoon-y you might expected. The technical wizardry that enhances the final scene is impressive and surprising.
"DSG" is certainly very funny, a fact that the shout-laugher who was sitting behind me last weekend would certainly attest to. But what may be most surprising about the show is that on one level, it's a tale of empowerment. There is tragedy involved but instead of maximizing the melodrama that the final events could present, the show focuses on CB's ongoing journey toward self-awareness. Some folks could quibble that Beethoven (an intense and effective performance by Lucian Restivo) is given short shrift by the plot and that homosexuality is not embraced as triumphantly as you might expect. The orientation of several characters is not firmly established at the show's close. But CB has taken a devastating but significant step towards a sort of redemption. Linus, er, I mean Van the Buddhist would be happy.