It’s hard to put on a good theater production, and it’s even harder when you don’t have the infrastructure of an established company to make the job a little easier. That’s all the more reason to salute Miguel A. Gastelum, who directed and produced the compelling black comedy “Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead.” The only frustrating thing about this production is that it runs for such a short amount of time: just four performances this weekend at The Voice Shop. (You still have time to catch the 2 p.m. show today at The Voice Shop in the Tower District.)
Written by Bert V. Royal, the 2004 play positions itself as an acerbic, darkly-edged, take-no-prisoners satire of the beloved “Peanuts” gang. While “Peanuts” creator Charles Schulz left his iconic characters frozen in elementary school, “Dog Sees God” fast forwards to the closing years of high school. In doing so, Royal is able to imagine all sorts of teen-age complications coursing through the lives of Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Sally and the gang — although the names have been altered somewhat, presumably to stay away as far from copyright issues as possible.
Part of “Dog Sees God” is easy-laugh territory, with Royal shredding apart the innocence of childhood. Snoopy (never referred to by name) has just died of rabies. C.B., his master, is despondent. C.B.’s sister is into Goth culture, though last week she was enamored of the Baptist church. Linus (in this version named Van) is a pothead. Van’s sister, with an unhealthy interest in fire, has been institutionalized. Time and again the laughs in the first part of the show come from this “update” process, liberally sprinkled with graphic language and sexual bravado.
This is a small production in an intimate space, and I’m impressed with the attention to detail, from Gastelum’s set design (one of the best I’ve seen in The Voice Shop), consisting of movable panels that feature nimble comic-influenced artwork by Mitchell Lam Hau, to Angela Salinas’ lighting design. Heather Sisk’s costumes find the thread of connection to the original “Peanuts” characters without being too blatant. It’s obvious a lot of dedication went into the short production timeline.
The casting is great as well, with the ensemble — not a weak one in the bunch — featuring some of the Fresno area’s promising young performers. Randall Kohlruss is an empathetic, appealing C.B., and Hannah Moser has some wonderful moments as his muddled sister. (Her interpretive dance interlude is priceless.) Justin Ray is a standout as the mellow Van, Brian Cade Sullivan Jr. offers a punchy turn as Matt (aka Pigpen) and Matthew Freitas delivers a tender, nuanced performance as Beethoven, the Schroeder-like character for whom C.B. develops a romantic attraction.
“Dog Sees God” really hits its stride with the work of Kelsey Deroian as Van’s sister (aka Lucy). C.B. comes to visit her at the psychiatric hospital, and their interchange is fierce, tender and just full of real emotions. It brought a few tears to my eyes.
Gastelum’s direction is efficient, keeping the multiple vignettes flowing smoothly. He astutely keeps the show out of sitcom territory, steering away from yukking it up too much over the “where are they now” humor. The only time the tone of the show gets too broad is in the scene in which we meet “Peppermint Pattie,” named Tricia (Kyla Kennedy, who goes on later in the show to offer some choice moments), and sidekick Marcy (Katy Michelle Lewis, who has a wonderful voice for the role), in which the silliness gets out of hand.
Then the show shifts into more serious territory, with C.B.’s conflicted feelings for Beethoven, who is bullied by his classmates, driving the narrative.
I’m not crazy about the final third of “Dog Sees God” in terms of the script. The play takes a much easier and predictable turn than I would like. I saw the show in 2004, and I felt that way back then. In a decade, the gay plotline has lost even more of its zing — especially when it comes to the reactions of CB’s friends to the revelation that he has same-sex feelings. I fully realize that bullying is still a terrible problem, but the way Royal deals with it feels melodramatic and forced — something that might have been written in the 1990s. Things get emotional, yes, but part of that drama feels formulaic.
A technical note: Productions at The Voice Shop work much better when there’s a raised stage.
Despite my quibbles with the script, however, I’m very enamored of this production. It’s a fine directorial debut for Gastelum. And don’t feel too bad for Snoopy. He lived a long, fine life.