By Joel Applegate
Funny. We’re warned from the beginning it’s adult language. That’s true. And we will see aAdult situations. That’s true, too. But In Dog Sees God, these are kids onstage. Well, adult actors playing kids. To all of us who’ve grown into adulthood ourselves, wasn’t our first cruelty at their hands? Dog Sees God is a riff on the beloved Peanuts cartoon strip. Seeing how the characters turned out as teenagers (in this version) squeezes the heart a little. Yes, there are many laugh out loud moments, but the poignancy comes right up behind.
What begins existentially turns into a story that is quite unvarnished. CB is played by Johnny Hebda with an engaging naturalness. But aren’t we watching a parody? Shouldn’t the dramatization be bigger than life size? A burlesque? But Dog Sees God is not merely a parody. It winds up searching through a tangle of sexuality, bullying and acting out. Silver Summit Theatre Company’s opening night performance turns into very brave and challenging production where mainstream Utah audiences are concerned.
“Dear Pen Pal – my dog died.” That’s the front bookend. Though they go by different names, the characters are all identifiable versions of the Charles Schulz characters. The Schulz estate has nothing to do with this play or its genesis. There are some great nods to the old Peanuts landscape, though. We of a certain age all know so well the “squawk, squawk” of adults speaking and the dance moves from the classic 1960’s Christmas animated special.
Now, as teenagers defining themselves, these kids want to throw off the curse that CB voices: “When I was a kid, I was a loser.” As CB’s Sister, Carson Kohler refuses to be categorized by anything outside herself. Kohler executes an uproarious send-up of one-woman shows. How can you be taken seriously when your metaphor is a platypus? “Us defines us” she cries, even if it is the childhood detritus of dead dogs, missing sisters, burned blankets.
I must have been more moved by this play than I let myself at first think. I actually had a moment of deja vu in the second act. CB and Beethoven play a painful scene. In it, Bryce Kamryn as Beethoven aches with vulnerability as many gay kids do even before they are sure – let alone can accept – their sexuality.
At first, the characters are burlesqued versions of themselves, except for CB, whose spiritual struggles appear to be unsuccessful. “I don’t ever want a clear mind again,” he says. The characters become richer and the play becomes more complicated as it progresses. The bullying issue is treated very seriously. CB is guilty. The faculty doesn’t care. There are no apologies for school shooters, but there is a reasoned explanation for their existence that is chilling. This may be Charlie Brown and friends wised up, but this is full frontal facing of some very serious issues all the same. Soulful kisses have the ability to stun.
All that teen angst left me pondering familiar questions. Nevertheless, there’s sharp humor in every scene, and some wonderful, telling moments. How does a successful transition from child to adolescent, from adolescent to adult, happen? Not on purpose. It just does. Pitfalls turn into steps and inspire some wicked laughs. I almost felt guilty for enjoying it so much.
My enjoyment was especially assisted by the great “Spork” scene. Alison Lente, as Tricia in a very sharp performance, and Aidan Rees as Marcy played off each other expertly and turned in some high-caliber stage business that was flat-out hilarious. Later, Rees turns in a very credible party rap that drewthe audience’s applause.
I found it curiously satisfying that the bossy Lucy of the old comic strip is now incarcerated. Alexa Rideout (as “Van’s Sister”) in a trenchant but unforced performance, is doing time after setting fire to the Little Red Haired Girl. But she claims she’s still sane. It’s not the institutionalized correction that she credits. It’s the lithium. “People out there are just as crazy as the ones in here.” In an odd sort of contrived acceptance, she tells the self-conscious CB that he’s “not cool enough to be gay”. She can’t feel sorry for her bad behavior because it was simply honest. She won’t justify. She just won’t apologize for being “outside the norm.”
Teens partying is not outside the norm. Frank Castro as Matt and G. Morgan Walton as Van are amped and primed for their blackouts. Both are unapologetic horn-dogs. Walton gets the stoner’s nuance just right without going overboard. Castro is recognizable as the old Pig-Pen ironically turned germophobe. He is solidly funny as the drunk seducer, but he can turn on a dime. His bully is harrowing and palpably scary. Here is an actor who understands impulse. All this trouble lands the gang in group counseling. As CB, Hebda’s final outburst is the most authentic moment of the play. It is heartbreaking and absolutely raw.
Production values are simple, but excellent. The set by Michael Rideout is minimal and workable. Painted wall units are flexible, easily moved and clearly tell us where we are. (The set changes could have been a little smoother, but I’ll give first-nighters a pass). I really liked the video screen set up with caption cards for each scene. I don’t usually comment on sound in a show, but this work is distinguished by its support instead of its intrusiveness. The mood was enhanced, and even commented upon, by the subtle touch of the sound design and mixing by Micheal Troy Klee and Michele Rideout. Just a persnickety note on my part: Actors who have to smoke on stage should know how it’s done – or don’t do it. ‘Nuff said.
The second bookend is a perfect coda; a reply from CB’s Pen Pal. Voiced by the whole cast as CB crumples in pain, it is supportive, practical and loving. No, this is not a send-up of old familiar characters. It’s what happens when Peanuts meets the Internet. It’s a bawdy, bodacious 21st Century exegesis of childhood. God Sees Dog is a jump point – the leap from childhood to adolescence is performed without a net. The kids are free falling. Our communication is riddled with sarcasm. There’s no moral of the story. Only a plea for compassion. If you’re progressive, or wannabe, or if you’re gay, bi or curious, or the parents of such, you owe yourself the visceral experience of Dog Sees God. Silver Summit Theatre Co.’s production is a cool, revolutionary wind blowing through Salt Lake Valley. It will clear your smog away.
The Midvale Main Street Theater is a very comfortable venue. Concessions are available and it is air conditioned. You can choose to sit at cafe tables or tiered seating at long tables. I’d recommend seeing this show soon. There are only eight performances through June 30th.
7711 S. Main St. (700 West), Midvale, Utah 84047
June 21, 22, 28 & 29 at 7:30 pm
Matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2:30 pm on June 22, 23, 29, 30.
Tickets: Adults – $15; Seniors, Military and Students with ID – $12.00 at the box office or on-line at www.buyyourtix.com