Good Grief


You're a Good But Conflicted, Sexually Confused Teen Still Groping for What It Will Mean to Be a Man, Charlie Brown.

And in the meantime, take a hit off Linus' bong and chill, dude.

"This is not, 'You're a Good Man Charlie Brown,' " says director Walter Niejadlik in an act of understatement about Las Vegas Little Theatre's "Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead," in which post-pubescent, Peanuts-based characters -- their names changed to protect the innocent against copyright infringement -- confront social challenges too complex to be resolved by a visit to crabby Lucy's five-cent psychiatric booth.

What's Peanuts without a smattering of drug use, suicide, teen violence, rebellion, eating disorders, sexual identity crises and homophobia? Without rummaging through the late Charles Schulz's massive, nearly half-century output, it's fairly safe to assume none of it contained kiddie dialogue or Snoopy thought bubbles such as "Shut up, bitch," "Did you have sex with him?" and "holy (expletive-expletive), you're a homo!"

"I loved the script because there's more beneath the surface now," says Joshuah Laird, who plays the Charlie Brown surrogate named CB. "They're all friends, but he's looking for answers about life that he can't find in his friends. There are a few twists in the show I didn't see coming. As long as people pay attention to the disclosure that there are mature themes and language and come in with an open mind, I think they'll be OK with it."

Playwright Bert V. Royal is responsible for filtering the animated treasure of wholesome Americana through the gritty lens of contemporary America. And after Schulz's family vigorously protested the depiction of the late cartoonist in author David Michaelis' biography, "Schulz and Peanuts," one wonders how his protective clan reacted to a play that portrays -- behind paper-thin aliases -- Schroeder (here called Beethoven) as an emerging gay man, Charlie Brown (CB) as sexually ambivalent, Linus (Van) as a stoner, Pig Pen (Matt) as a germ-phobic homophobe, Lucy (Van's sister) as an institutionalized pyromaniac, Sally (CB's sister) as a surly goth chick and a rabid Snoopy murdering little Woodstock (both unnamed).

"I don't think they'd be real thrilled with it," Niejadlik says, chuckling about the "unauthorized parody" tag tacked on as a disclaimer. "On the license requirement for the show, we have to print in the program that it is in no way endorsed or approved of by the estate of Charles Schulz. It struck me as funny as I was reading the contract."

As "Blockhead" opens, CB's beloved beagle has been put down from rabies and he contemplates what happens to us after death.

"Maggot food!" shout Peppermint Patty (now Tricia) and Marcie (Marcy), who've evolved (or devolved) from geeky tomboys to self-involved brats. Van spouts weed-impaired philosophy and Van's sister, CB's ex-girlfriend (so Charlie Brown dated Lucy!) was locked away after setting the Little Red-Haired Girl's flame-colored locks aflame.

Befuddled by life and his own identity, CB turns to sexually confused, ostracized Beethoven:

Beethoven: "Are you on crack?"

CB: "I thought you wanted me to kiss you."

Beethoven: "Sticking up for me is one thing. Sticking your tongue down my throat in front of everyone is quite another."

In an interview with nyulivewire.com, Royal explained why he chose to turn the world's most beloved children into a fractured, frazzled gang of teens: "What was so appealing about these kids is that life was always so sad, even though there was nothing to be sad about. I thought the idea of taking them and putting them in real trauma could be really interesting."

And recasting them as adolescents also might have been an act of theatrical catharsis for a writer vexed by them. "I hate teenagers. I can't stand them. They scare me. I just think it's this period of time where puberty makes you crazy. They're such nasty human beings."

Though spinning off radically from Schulz's conception, Niejadlik wanted to maintain the core of the characters without rigidly re-creating them. "For most people of my generation, Peanuts is almost iconic, and everybody remembers those cartoons that were on CBS in the '70s," Niejadlik says.

"All the cast on the first day of rehearsal was given the DVD copies of every one of the CBS cartoons, even the crew and the design team. I told the actors I wanted to see what physical traits and vocal mannerisms they could pick up that were very specific and could convey the character without trying to create a caricature of a cartoon -- make them real people of today."

"Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead" plunges Peanuts doppelgangers into a jarring alternate universe.

Brace for a good amount of grief, Charlie Brown.

Contact reporter Steve Bornfeld at sbornfeld@reviewjournal.com or 702-383-0256.

 

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