Saturday, March 16, 2013

Happy Medium Theatre Crusades Against Bullying in Their Remarkable Production of "Dog Sees God - Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead" by Bert V. Royal

Happy Medium Theatre has raised the bar for Boston Fringe Theater with their current production of the deeply moving "DOG SEES GOD: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead" by Bert V. Royal.  I will not reveal a great deal about the plot of the show, because the theater company has done an excellent job of outlining the key elements of the show in the press release you will find at the end of my review.  I will, rather, comment upon my experience as an audience member of watching last night's performance and the thoughts and feelings that the play evoked in me.

I was not sure what to expect.  Yesterday on FaceBook, founding Happy Medium Theatre company member Mikey DiLoreto wrote: "Praise or pan or mixed, I really don't give a f**k what any review may say. DOG SEES GOD: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead is magical."  Mikey's remarks notwithstanding, I will sally forth with my comments about the show.

Think about what it would be like to eavesdrop on the Peanuts gang of characters as they have grown up and are experiencing the vicissitudes of high school life.  The kids have all of the traits we found so adorable when they were little.  But these same traits, writ large and magnified through the distorting lens of pubescence, are fare less adorable when fueled by hormonal rage and identity uncertainty.  

In much the same way that Frank Baum's books and the original film of Wizard of Oz served as a launching pad for "Wicked," Charles M. Schultz's iconic comic strip, Peanuts, is the inspiration for Bert V. Royal's brilliant play.  In "Dog Sees God," the characters and their familiar foibles are readily recognizable, but they have been drawn in much darker colors.  Darkness and light play important roles in this chiaroscuro of existential despair. Shadows of Sandy Hook and Columbine play upon the audience members' collective psyche as the narrative unfolds.

Director Lizette M. Morris, who also plays Van's sister, has made some wise choices.  The set is minimal, befitting the Piano Factory Theater's ambiance.  She has created a world in which much of the story is told through very creative uses of butcher paper - sometimes employed as parchment, note paper, a cloak, a chrysalis for an emerging ex-caterpillar, a cape, a shawl, a shroud, a blanket, a message board.

The structure of the play is brilliantly framed by the concept of CB attempting to communicate with a pen pal.  At the outset, CB (Charlie Brown) is writing a despairing letter to the pen pal who has long been silent, bewailing the recent loss of his dog, and wondering what happens to dogs when they die. At the end of the play, as a matching bookend, a letter arrives unexpectedly from the pen pal, and the ensemble joins CB in reading the reassuring words that have arrived from above. The effect is riveting and heart-rending. 

Between these bookends, there are two linchpins to the story that pull everything together. The first is a touching scene that takes place in the music room of the high school.  CB drops in on Beethoven, who is constantly being bullied because he is perceived by the "normal kids" to be a "faggot."  CB is played brilliantly by Michael Underhill; Joey C. Pelletier is equally moving as the sensitive victim of abuse, Beethoven.  Both actors, who each possess powerful acting chops, wisely choose to act this scene in a subdued and understated manner that adds to the power and poignancy of the moment.  During a confrontation between the two former childhood friends, anger turns into understanding and perhaps more, as Beethoven sits at the piano and plays Chopin's "Revolutionary Etude."  The choice of musical metaphor is brilliant, for what is revealed in this key scene is as bombastic as the chords of the musical piece and as revolutionary as the events that inspired the composer.

The second linchpin is a "One Woman Show" presented as a performance art piece by CB's chameleon sister, played by Kiki Samko in a stunning portrayal that represents the best work I have ever seen her do. The piece reminded me of Maureen's "Cow Jumped Over the Moon" bit in RENT. Kiki played the scene with just the right blend of parody and vulnerability.  She tells the story of her imagining herself metamorphosing and evolving from a caterpillar into a - no, not a butterfly - but a platypus.  It is a wonderful metaphor for what is happening to each of the characters in the play.  A platypus defies easy categorization.  It is a mammal that lays eggs, for God's sake!  It is "neither fish nor fowl," but a "tertium quid" - a third thing. Each of the growing Peanuts is at a different awkward stage of breaking out of the cocoon of childhood into a series of forms that will continue to change.  Will this new "me" be acceptable to my friends and the world, or will I be bullied and rejected for being different?

The rest of the cast, listed below, each add their own shade of coloring to the action and to the palette of the Peanuts.  It is a strong ensemble.

At one point in the show, a vision is laid out - from the pages of Scripture - for how we might all someday come to accept one another despite differences.  The iconic passage (from the 11th Chapter, verses 6-9 of the Prophecy of Isaiah) is often called "The Peaceable Kingdom":

The wolf will live with the lamb,
the leopard will lie down with the goat,
the calf and the lion and the yearling together;
and a little child will lead them.
The cow will feed with the bear,
their young will lie down together,
and the lion will eat straw like the ox.
The infant will play near the cobra’s den,
and the young child will put its hand into the viper’s nest.
They will neither harm nor destroy
on all my holy mountain,
for the earth will be filled with the knowledge of the Lord
as the waters cover the sea.

At its core, this is a play about coming of age, about questioning the reality of existence, and about the need to stand up to bullying of those who are not easily categorized or "normal."  It is a story powerfully told and lovingly performed.  I laughed; I cried.  I thought; I felt.  

See the show and take your own journey.  And allow these young actors and the characters they portray - allow the "little child" - to lead you on that journey towards a Peaceable Kingdom.



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Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead
by Bert V. Royal
Good Grief! Have you ever wondered what happened to the beloved gang of kids from Peanuts? The award-winning Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead by Bert V. Royal is an irreverent and poignant unauthorized parody in which the beloved comic strip characters are re-imagined a decade later as hormonal teenagers with serious issues.
When CB’s dog dies from rabies, CB begins to question the existence of an afterlife. His best friend is too burnt out to provide any coherent speculation; his sister has gone Goth; his ex-girlfriend has recently been institutionalized; and his other friends are too inebriated to give him any sort of solace. But a chance meeting with an artistic kid, the target of this group’s bullying, offers CB a peace of mind and sets in motion a friendship that will push teen angst to the very limits.
Our show will star Michael Underhill (Polaroid Stories, Heart & Dagger Productions/Happy Medium Theatre/Boston Actors’ Theater) as the lovable, yet utterly confused CB (Charlie Brown). Michael has been hailed as one of “the young actors in Boston to watch” and we are elated that he is leading our production. Alongside Mr. Underhill, Joey C. Pelletier (The Legend of Sleepy Hollow, imaginary beasts) will portray the troubled and fragile Beethoven (Schroeder). The proclaimed “bad boy of Boston theatre” will soften his image for this heartbreaking role.
The show will also feature 6 very well-known names from the Boston Fringe community: Mikey DiLoreto as Van (Linus), Nick Miller as Matt (Pigpen), Lesley Anne Moreau as Marcy (Marcie), Lizette M. Morris as Van’s Sister (Lucy), Kiki Samko as CB’s Sister (Sally), and Audrey Lynn Sylvia as Tricia (Peppermint Patty).
Th. March 14 (8 p.m.) (Preview)
Fri. March 15 (8 p.m.) (PRESS NIGHT)
Sat. March 16 (8 p.m.) (PRESS NIGHT 2)
Sun. March 17 (4 p.m.) (PRESS NIGHT 3)
Th. March 21* (8 p.m.)
Fri. March 22 (8 p.m.)
Sat. March 23 (8 p.m.)
Sun. March 24 (4 p.m.)
Th. March 28 (8 p.m.)
Fri. March 29 (8 p.m.)
Sat. March 30 (8 p.m.)

*Denotes $5 Performance – CASH ONLY AT THE DOOR
Adults- $18 in advance, $20 at door.
Students/Seniors- $15 in advance, $17 at door

Happy Medium Theatre will also be donating funds collected from our performances to donate to the It Gets Better Project; an organization created to show young LGBT people the levels of happiness, potential, and positivity their lives will reach – if they can just get through their teen years. The It Gets Better Project wants to remind teenagers in the LGBT community that they are not alone — and it WILL get better. It’s our small way of giving back to the community while simultaneously spreading a message of hope. For more information regarding the project, please visit and look out for our YouTube video coming out in the next 2 weeks!

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