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Good (and not-so-good) grief

April 20, 2016
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'Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead'

ORONO Growing up is complicated. The truth is that we learn so much about who we are along the way that often, our childhood selves are all but unrecognizable even just a few short years later. As we grow, our journeys can take us in unexpected directions. No one is immune to the alterations of adolescence.

Not even Charlie Brown.

The Maine Masque, the University of Maine's longtime student-run theater organization, presented their production of Bert V. Royal's 'Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead' directed by Alan Liam Estes - at Hauck Auditorium on the UMaine campus. The show is viewed as an 'unauthorized parody,' a bleak and unsettling reimagining of Charles Schultz's beloved characters as they make their way through high school. The names are slightly different, but there's no doubt who they are.

CB (Zachary Peacock) is writing a letter to his pen pal after many years. His dog recently contracted rabies and had to be put down, so CB is working his way through issues regarding the afterlife. He seeks solace from a number of people his sister (Liz Ayotte); his stoner buddy Van (Ian McArdle); his football pal Matt (John Dalton Logan); and the mean girl duo of Tricia (Isabella Etro) and Marcy (Nicole Felix).

CB struggles to gain any understanding from any of them, so he turns to the tormented Beethoven (Noah Lovejoy), a former friend who has been utterly alienated from the gang since a tragic event years in the past. CB's quest for connection brings him and Beethoven together a development that the rest of the gang simply can't deal with. In fact, the only one who seems willing to accept CB's choices is Van's sister (Emilia Byrne), who has been institutionalized due to a propensity for setting things on fire.

Throughout, the gang deals with numerous issues familiar to teenagers - substance abuse, sexuality, eating disorders, bullying, suicide and questions of rebellion versus conformity as well as the more metaphysical issues inherent to the notions of death and the afterlife.

As you might guess, 'Dog Sees God' takes the Peanuts gang far from their innocent childhoods. In truth, the play is downright bleak in many respects. There are moments of levity interjected throughout the proceedings, but make no mistake this is a long way from happily ever after for any of these kids.

That unrelenting bleakness makes this show a difficult one; much of it relies on an audience's previous knowledge of the characters in order to gain perspective on their current personalities. The script also has a vein of preachiness running though it that particularly in the end feels very heavy-handed. One could argue that the extremity of the personality shifts was a conscious choice to offer a cracked-mirror reflection of Charles Schultz's original work, but the narrative is still too thin and too over-the-top.

However, director Estes and his cast have done their best to elevate the script. Estes clearly feels a connection to the material that allows him to navigate the ensemble through a problematic script and tell a compelling (albeit downbeat) story.

Peacock serves as the show's foundation as CB. There's a wide-eyed sincerity to his portrayal that clicks even when he dips into the darker moments; it allows us to empathize with him fairly easily. Logan turns the former Pig Pen into a full-on alpha, a rage-fueled bundle of barely-concealed neuroses built on germophobia, homophobia and misogyny. His aggressive energy courses through every scene. Lovejoy's Beethoven embodies the withdrawn sensitivity of the bullied, with moments of quiet dignity shining through his sadness. Linus analog Van is the closest thing the show has to consistent comic relief; McArdle's perpetually-stoned grin and chill bro-speak are an easily-accepted invitation to laugh.

Ayotte mines laughs from the constantly-shifting belief system of CB's sister; the excerpts of Sally's one-woman show are actually quite delightful. Etro and Felix are essentially inseparable onstage; the two have a quick-fire chemistry as the ever-angry Tricia and the sex-crazed Marcy. They're united in the unapologetic terribleness to which both actresses fully commit. And Byrne takes a nice turn as Van's sister; the erstwhile Lucy is manic and disturbed, but she might also be the one who has grown the most out of all of them.

Katharine Keaton's sparsely effective scenic design teams with the lighting design of Kaleigh Knights to create a stripped-down, raw canvas for the actors. Together with the costume and hair/makeup work of the aforementioned Etro and Felix, the production elements come together into a flexible playground for the actors.

'Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead' is undeniably dark. However, it is also undeniably different this is the sort of piece with which theatre students should be challenging themselves. It's a flawed script, to be sure, but what scripts aren't? Academic theatre should be about taking chances; congratulations to the Maine Masque for taking a big one.

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