’Peanuts’ on the Half Shell :: Mikey DiLoreto on ’Dog Sees God’

by Kilian Melloy

EDGE Staff Reporter

Tuesday March 5, 2013

A fresh spin (and "unauthorized parody") on the "Peanuts" gang returns to Boston with Happy Medium Theatre's production of Bert V. Royal's "Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead."

"Blockhead" is, of course, an insult recognizable from the "Peanuts" comic strip. It's usually hurled at Charlie Brown. The presence of the word in the play's title makes it plain that Royal is riffing on Charles M. Schultz's long-running comic, a monumental daily strip that enjoyed a fifty-year run and had a huge impact not only on comics but on American culture.

Author-illustrator Charles Schultz once observed that most people have far more experience with losing than with winning; he brought that ethos to Charlie Brown, the good-hearted anchor of the strip who rarely ever gets what he wants, be it a touchdown kick (Lucy keeps snatching the ball away at the last minute), the respect of his beagle, Snoopy (who has more confidence and imagination than Charlie brown himself), or the attentions of a Little Red Haired Girl (she never notices him, and we readers never see here... except once, in silhouette, the better to pique our curiosity).

Gay Boys, Mean Girls, Dead Dog

Schultz’s beloved comic comprised a grand total of nearly 18,000 strips. In the course of that time, Schultz created and developed an unforgettable cast of iconic characters.

In addition to Charlie Brown and Snoopy, the cast, which introduced and then phased out many characters as the years went on, settled on a core membership, including crabby Lucy van Pelt and her security blanket-toting brother Linus, an intellectual and philosopher; Schroeder, a musical prodigy obsessed with Beethoven to the point of ignoring the adoring Lucy; the tomboyish Peppermint Patty and her long-suffering sidekick, Marcie (viewed in some circles as an incipiently lesbian couple); Pigpen, a slob perpetually surrounded by a cloud of dust; Sally, Charlie Brown’s little sister; and Woodstock, a little yellow bird who likes to pal around with Snoopy.

Other recurring characters include the unseen, but oft-referenced Little Red Haired Girl, as well as Charlie Brown’s nameless pen pal, both of whom figure into the workings of Royal’s sequel / parody / reinvention of the strip.

In the course of his re-imaginings, Royal updates and reinvents the "Peanuts" cast of characters. Though the original strip touched upon social issues, and the characters often spoke like adults, their points of view were essentially those of children.

Royal ages the characters by a decade, ushering in all the attendant teen concerns: Sexuality, substance abuse, bullying, relationship issues. This isn’t your father’s "Peanuts." It’s not even the "Peanuts" of your own youth. Nor is it meant to be; "Peanuts" was never a sentimental glorification of childhood, but neither did it step into the mire of adolescence. Its characters often had a sort of preternatural wisdom, or at least fully-formed, even archetypal, personalities.

In a way, the strip brackets early life and full maturity, skipping over the messy middle part. Royal essentially fills in a missing step.

Thus, Charlie Brown becomes CB (played by Michael Underhill in this production), and the play starts just after CB has to put down his rabid dog, a tragedy that triggers an existential crisis.

Meantime, the girls in CB’s life have gone wild: His younger sister (Kiki Samko) is a goth "gangsta bitch," Tricia (Audrey Lynn Sylvia) is a wild child who hangs out with the bisexual Marcy (Lesley Anne Moreau), and the mean girl sister (Lizette M. Morris, who also directs) of CB’s buddy Van (Mikey DiLoreto) is locked up for lighting fire to the unattainable "Little Red Haired Girl."

The boys are not much better off. Van is a stoner; Matt (Nick Miller) is a homophobic bully, and he harasses the sensitive Beethoven (Joey C. Pelletier) for being gay. In many ways, the themes of the play are not so far off from the themes of the comic strip; they’ve simply come into sharper focus and the characters, too, have gotten edgier.

Naturally, that’s a cause for some level of controversy, not unlike Jeff Whitty, Robert Lopez, and Jeff Marx’s grown-up, satirical riff on Sesame Street, the puppet-heavy musical "Avenue Q." But the play has been critically well-received and has seen past productions on the Boston theater scene.

EDGE chatted with Happy Medium’s Mikey DiLoreto about the play, the production, and his own role as Van.

Long Time Coming

EDGE: First off, of course, what led you to include "Dog Sees God" in this season’s lineup?

Mikey DiLoreto: "Dog Sees God" has been on our radar since [Happy Medium Theatre’s] inception. We didn’t want to do it earlier in our tenure for two reasons: 1.) Gurnet Theatre had just done an exceptional production of it in 2007, and 2.) we needed a little more time to mature as a company in order to pull this deeply complex show off. As each season passed, "Dog Sees God" was always there in our annals just sort of staring us in the face. So we took the bull by the horns and decided to go for it in Season 4.

Now, with the rash of bullying that has run rampant [as reported in] the media, and the surge of suicides in the LGBTQ community, it became an excellent way to portray our feelings about these awful occurrences. And what better way to showcase it all than with an amazing show like "Dog Sees God?"

EDGE: Earlier this season, the Lyric Stage Company produced "Avenue Q," which strikes me as similar to "Dog Sees God" in that it riffs on a beloved icon from childhood and brings it into the adult world. What’s the dramatic function of this sort of reinvention of a beloved cultural institution? Some might feel that "adultifying" Peanuts or Sesame Street is sacrilege, after all...

Mikey DiLoreto: Oh, we know that some people (who maybe haven’t done their research about "Dog Sees God") are not going to be happy with how Mr. Royal has decided to write these characters and how we’re playing them. What "Dog Sees God" doesn’t have is the unabashed raunchy humor that "Avenue Q" does... and puppets. We have bullying, suicide, fag-bashing, mean girls, fat jokes, drugs, identity issues, pyromania. Folks might be none too pleased with all that rolled into a 90 minute show based off "Peanuts" characters!

But what we hope people take away from "Dog Sees God" is that we’re not turning these characters on their head just for the fun of it; we’re using them as a way to showcase larger issues facing adolescents in high school. And that the time for change is now.

EDGE: Another shocker for some "Peanuts" fans was "Schultz and Peanuts," David Michaelis’ 2008 biography of Charles Schultz. Michaelis’ account showed how some of the comic’s episodes were reflections of Schultz’s own life -- even parts of his life that made fans of the strip uncomfortable. Did that book’s revelations color this production at all?

Mikey DiLoreto: I do know about the book and I believe we have referenced it a couple of times, but honestly we’re really trying to let the words of Mr. Royal take us emotionally and physically into the majority of places we need to go while using Mr. Schultz’s comic strip/cartoons as primary dramaturgy!

EDGE: All the old "Peanuts" strips are now being collected and published in a series of hardcover volumes by Fantagraphics. Did you peruse any of these collections in preparation for the production?

Mikey DiLoreto: We’ve all watched YouTube videos, read old comic strips, watched their erratic dance skills, etc. It’s been great to revisit "the gang." Personally, I recommend "Race for Your Life, Charlie Brown" and "Bon Voyage Charlie Brown (and Don’t Come Back!)." Genius! Watching and reading [this material] has helped all of us shape the arc of our characters.

EDGE: At the same time that "Dog Sees God" is very recognizable as the "Peanuts" kids fast-forwarded into adolescence, the play skirts the issue a little by changing the characters’ names. Reportedly, Schultz’s estate did not approve of the play.

Mikey DiLoreto: Without a doubt [the "Peanuts" cast are recognizable here]. The show has been classified as an "unauthorized parody" and I know some first amendment rights were invoked to avoid any legal action... and it’s so shocking to me. I really, in my heart, believe that Mr. Schultz would have loved this play and even endorsed it if he had been able to see it. It’s not a show to be missed by anyone.

Love and Plaudits

EDGE: It’s sort of not a surprise that Linus has grown up to become a stoner, or Lucy a "mean girl," but it is something of a surprise when two of the characters become involved in a gay relationship... and it’s not Marcie and Peppermint Patty! How well do you feel the same-sex love element works?

Mikey DiLoreto: The same-sex love element is the catalyst that leads up to the tonal shift in the show, for better and for worse. It helps each of the characters realize who they are as people, and how they deal with individualism and social difference. It is the pinnacle turning point in "Dog Sees God." And, don’t worry; I won’t say who they are either. People will just have to come and see for themselves!

EDGE: Tell me about the cast. How well do they match up to the characters from the strip? Did you say to yourself, for example, "Joey is totally like Schroeder!" And did you, like, bogart the part of Linus? Because -- let’s face it -- Linus was always the coolest and smartest of the lot, outside of Snoopy.

Mikey DiLoreto: I could write you a novel about how much I love this cast. First things first... when we chose to do "Dog Sees God," we knew we had to assemble an ensemble of actors with an insane amount of trust among each other. Director/Actor Lizette Morris and I sat down one day over a bottle of wine, and within 5 minutes we had a cast. What we wanted was a core group of believable friends. And that’s really actually what we are. We all hang out outside of rehearsal, go to parties together, share problems, give advice, tease one another, etc.

And now, here comes my lauding. Kiki Samko is CB’S Sister. No questions. Her versatility as an actress is outstanding, so we knew had to have her in this role. Audrey Lynn Sylvia and Lesley Anne Moreau as Tricia and Marcy have such an excellent rapport between them already, so it was a no-brainer to pair them. Nick Miller as Matt has this insane amount of energy that we knew we could tap into. It was his brilliant work in "Refuge" that helped inform our casting decision. Settie Morris has such a raw verve inherent in her as a person, which made her perfect for Van’s Sister, while Joey C. Pelletier has this shocking amount of sensitivity underneath his "bad boy" veneer that made us go, yes, Beethoven! Then lil’ ol’ me? Bogart? Never! Okay, I totally did. And you’re right... it is because Van’s the coolest! Just don’t tell my cast-mates that. Hopefully, I do him justice. I have a lot to live up to!

And then, of course, Michael Underhill as CB might just be the sleeper hit of the year. I’m not sure he’s ever "led" a show, and it was high time he had the opportunity. I think everyone will agree that his performance is award-worthy.

Although we’re not all physically what you might think of as a "Peanuts" gang (i.e., pyromaniacs and bullies, and we’re all older than teenagers), I assure you that I’ve watched each cast mate of mine grow into these characters exquisitely. They’re all gonna kill it.

"Dog Sees God" plays March 14 - 30 at the Factory Theater. Tickets available now online at www.theatermania.com/boston-theater/shows/dog-sees-god-confessions-of-a-teenage-blockhead_198444

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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