Montana Actors’ Theatre review: You’re a good play, ‘Dog Sees God’

Montana Actors’ Theatre review: You’re a good play, ‘Dog Sees God’

Jay Pyette

December 2, 2010, by Joe Nickell, Missoulian

C.B. is not the Charlie Brown you know. Instead of a comic-strip character, he is a real guy standing before you at the Crystal Theatre, in Montana Actors’ Theatre’s production of “Dog Sees God.” His yellow shirt with the jagged black line, like a lightning-strike across his chest, and his big head under a stocking cap may resemble features of his drawn doppelganger, but C.B. will not delight your grandmother with his luck-lorn humor and wry commentary on the human condition.

Not that he lacks either. But, from the beginning, one must be prepared for the particular kind of humor and insight that frames the very funny pages of Bert V. Royal’s 2004 script.

Built unmistakably on the foundation of Charles M. Schultz’s famous comic strip, “Peanuts,” but with all the names changed (for reasons that become obvious), “Dog Sees God” concerns itself with what happens when the proverbial chickens come home to roost – or, in this case, when that “little yellow bird that had always been around” comes home to roost, only to be eaten by a certain beagle who has contracted rabies and must therefore be put down, much to the existential chagrin of his now-teenage master, C.B.

“When my dog died, that was when the rain cloud came back and everything went to hell,” C.B. tells his never-responsive pen pal in the play’s opening scene.

Actually, plenty has gone to hell before the curtain rises. C.B.’s sister – the sweet little girl you might vaguely recognize as Sally – has transformed into a foul-mouthed, cigarette-smoking goth chick.

C.B.’s friend, Van (nee Linus), is now a philosophizing pothead whose own connection to childhood innocence recently went up in smoke. “Dude,” he drawls to C.B., “we all have to let go of things from our childhood. Do you remember when you and my sister burned my blanket to teach me that?”

Matt (Pigpen) is now a homophobic neat-freak bully; Tricia and Marcy (Peppermint Patty and Marcie) are popularity-obsessed party girls who spike their lunch milk with booze; Beethoven (Schroeder) is an outcast whose father sexually abused him; and Van’s sister (Lucy) is confined to an asylum because she set a girl’s hair on fire.

It’s the kind of setup that could result in little more than crass high-school humor and shallow cultural references. It’s to Royal’s credit that he employs both toward an ultimately greater good in a script that resonates with themes more common to newspaper headlines than the Sunday funnies.

And it’s to the credit of Montana Actors’ Theatre, the Crystal Theatre’s small-budget resident company, that “Dog Sees God” transcends crudely drawn caricature, bringing to life a story that resonates long after the lights go down.

Andy Meyers, as the slumping, ever-so-subtly effete C.B., grounds the production’s solid cast in the everyday conflicts of his age: conformity versus self-actualization, bullying versus being bullied, image versus substance.

“When we were kids, everybody – mostly you – told me what I was doing was wrong,” he tells Van’s sister (played here with a delicious balance of unapologetic sadism and sweetheart charm by Samantha Pollington). “It made me so self-conscious about everything. Good grief!

“Dog Sees God” – the title of which refers to an old saying about how a dog views its master – concerns itself with C.B.’s efforts to break through his self-consciousness. He gets there largely through the involuntary assistance of Beethoven, a bullied introvert played with masterful awkwardness by Joshua Legate.

The ultimate result is far from pretty. As Charlie Brown himself once observed, “it always looks darkest just before it gets totally black.”

Fortunately, the production’s energetic supporting cast, directed by Eric Hersh, brings plenty of light along the way. Jim Badcock’s devil-may-care turn as the stoner Van drew waves of laughter from Wednesday’s opening-night audience; waves became tsunami when C.B.’s sister (Tylyn Carmean) unveiled her acrobatic, melodramatic one-woman show, “Cocooning Into Platypus.”

Alexsa Prince and Marie Fahlgren bring air-headed glee to the roles of Marcy and Tricia, while Callan Berry’s trim, carefully manicured visage can’t conceal the bulldozer personality that lurks beneath.

All those elements come together in a play that’s by turns horrifying and redemptive, hilarious and heartbreaking. Though parents might blanch at the foul language and risque subject matter of some scenes, it’s the kind of play that speaks vitally to the trials of today’s teens – particularly those who face bullying themselves.

Asked if he believes in an afterlife, Beethoven observes, “There has to be some reward for living through this.” In the case of “Dog Sees God,” there’s plenty of reward for the rest of us in the end.

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