REVIEW: Dog Sees God (Epic Theatre)

  
  

What happens when the Peanuts gang grows up? It’s not pretty.

  
 

Epic Theatre's "Dog Sees Dog" by Bert V. Royal - now playing at Stage 773

  
Epic Theatre presents
  
Dog Sees God: Confessions of Teenage Blockhead
   
Written by Bert V. Royal
Directed by Scott Adam Johnston & William Hasty
at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map)
through Feb 21  |  tickets: $20  |  more info

Reviewed by Oliver Sava

A play about the “Peanuts” gang as teenagers navigating a contemporary high school setting is ripe with potential. I love seeing beloved characters thrown into unfamiliar environments; Sondheim does it with Into The Woods; Julie Taymor is currently trying with Spider-Man: Turn off the Dark. Unfortunately Dog Sees God: Confession of a Teenage Blockhead is more the latter than the former, a misguided mess that takes everything lovable Schultz’s characters and degrades it in a wave of sex, drugs, and utter stupidity. Leaving Epic Theatre’s production, I would have guessed the script was still a first draft, but Dog Sees God has played off-Broadway, with some pretty big names in the cast, too. Apparently the public’s morbid curiosity with seeing childhood icons disgraced is higher than I thought.

Epic Theatre's "Dog Sees Dog" by Bert V. Royal - now playing at Stage 773Dog Sees God begins with CB (Fred Geyer) writing a letter to an undisclosed pen pal, mourning the loss of his beagle after it contracted rabies and killed the little yellow bird that was always around it. Yeah, Snoopy ate Woodstock. It gets much, much worse. After holding a funeral that no one but his sister (Miriam Reuter) shows up to, he ruminates about the nature of life and death with his friend Van (Jason Nelson), a stoner version of Linus that smokes his blanket after his sister and CB burn it. Then we’re introduced to Matt (Matt Hays) the germaphobe, homophobe future version of Pig Pen who does coke before class and gets his kicks by bullying Beethoven (Greg Brew), an alienated Schroeder whose father molested him as a child. Peppermint Patty and Marcie are Tricia (Ashley Preston) and Marcy (Lauren Bourke), stereotypical high school mean girls that sip vodka out of milk cartons while discussing new ways to demean themselves and others. The gang is rounded out by Van’s sister (Nicole Carter), an institutionalized, pyromaniac Lucy who was thrown in an asylum after burning the Little Red-Haired Girl’s curly locks. There they are, the bastardized future selves of the Peanuts gang.

Royal’s script is so cliché-filled that it’s almost as if he were given a list of stereotypical characters and situations in a high school environment. Drinking and drug abuse, abortion, molestation, suicide, bullying, prejudiced jocks, bitchy blondes, the talented, tortured quiet boy…the list goes on and on. The hodgepodge of issues makes the play a disorganized mess, and things happen so quickly that nothing is given time to actually have any sort of emotional gravity. CB kisses Beethoven at a party, and he is immediately ready to accept a homosexual identity because it’s convenient to the story Royal is trying to tell. Who care if it’s completely unrealistic? The entire play is built around bizarre developments, from a completely unnecessary rap interlude by Marcy to everyone’s irrational fear of a “gay disease.” Was this written in 1972? Nope. 2004. In the end, the play’s anti-bullying message comes across as trite, a tacked on epilogue to make the play feel relevant despite the archaic views it presents.

The shameful thing is that there are good actors underneath some of these characters. Geyer, despite being a little too mousy to be one of the “cool kids,” tries to create legitimate conflict in CB although the script is constantly working against him. His first scene with Beethoven is even above average, giving their relationship some believability that will, of course, be completely compromised later. As CB’s sister, Reuter has some strong moments, surprisingly when she performs her one woman show “Cocooning Into Platypus,” which is the kind of juvenile theater piece a high school goth would write. But this isn’t a high school play, this is professional theater with paying patrons, and they shouldn’t have to sit and watch derivative scene after derivative scene.

As messy as the script is, the direction from Johnston and Hasty only serves to muddle up the production further. During the party scene, six actors are all crammed onto one platform, attempting to create the illusion of a crowded party but mostly just looking uncomfortable. One of the play’s most important moments happens during this scene, but the poor blocking takes away its resonance. The production values are minimal, from the sloppy set to the limited lighting and sound that make the show feel incomplete to a large degree.

From the script to the staging, Dog Sees God: Confession of a Teenage Blockhead is like Charlie Brown and the football. It keeps on kicking, and it keeps on missing. Glorified fan-fiction at its best, low-grade smut at its worst, this play goes against everything Schultz’s characters stand for. The play ends with an attempt to honor the “Peanuts” creator, but after 90 minutes of watching Charlie Brown and his friends humiliate themselves, it’s just offensive.

  
  
Rating: ★½
  
  

Review: Project 891’s “Never the Sinner: The Leopold and Loeb Story”

 An Ode to the Wrong at Heart

Loeb and Leopold

Project 891 Theatre presents:

Never the Sinner: The Leopold and Loeb Story
by John Logan
directed by Michael Rashid

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Project 891 Theatre’s first stage venture, Never the Sinner: the Leopold and Loeb Story, resonates with unresolved issues from the last century. These issues continue into the 21st century as part of our unresolved daily discourse: justice, mercy, the cause of callous criminal conduct, the value of human life, the death penalty, sexuality and its causes. When one considers the implications of this play by Academy Award screenwriter John Logan, what amazes is that both the infamous murder and its prosecution are central to the history of Chicago and the nation, yet receive little serious attention today beyond true crime enthusiasts.

Guest director Michael Rashid was completely surprised when the producers offered him the project:

“They sent the script down in front of me at IHOP. We were just heading out for coffee and fries. I had known about the script for a while and had been fascinated with the story from my teens. After seeing Swoon! I was fascinated by the villains, the dark side and, being a gay man myself, the gay relationship in the story. John Logan emphasizes, first and foremost, this is a love story between Nathan Leopold and Richard Loeb.”

The performances are the greatest power of the production. Matt Hays (Richard Loeb), Ron Popp (Nathan Leopold), Gary Murphy (Clarence Darrow), and Robert Kaercher (Robert Crowe) are its four pillars. Each actor has been cast with precision. Gary Murphy is pitch perfect as the weary, yet undaunted humanist Clarence Darrow. Leopold and Loeb2Matt Hays conveys Loeb’s boyish amoral enthusiasm with humorous but terrifying accuracy. Robert Kaercher’s States Attorney is the quintessential man of his times, in his demeanor, delivery, and over-reliance on expertise to prosecute criminals.

Actors playing the press provide the necessary relief from the heaviness of the play’s themes, but Logan’s first work is not the easiest with which to create an uninterrupted dramatic arc. Its structure contains a lot of stop-and-start from scene to scene and Rashid’s direction has not resolved all those problems, given the spatial limitations of Chemical Imbalance Theatre. The incorporation of a high tech large digital flat screen as backdrop to the simple 1924 set and costuming is effective for the most part, conveying period newsreel footage and images emphasizing Leopold’s fascinations with falcons and Loeb. But it can also be distracting when unnecessarily telegraphing Leopold and Loeb’s relationship.

Ron Popp’s turn as Nathan Leopold, or Babe, is the hardest to warm to. His detached, ratiocinated worldview, his absolute belief in the Nietzschean Superman, provides as much distance between the character and audience as it does between him and the rest of his character’s world. But the play is dead-on in centering his worldview, with its deeper psychological underpinnings, Leopold, Loeb and Clarence Darrow as the prism through which to view Leopold and Loeb’s murder of Bobby Frank. This comes through with painful clarity when psychologists for the state interrogate Leopold and Loeb, expounding on their same-sex affair with the same detached, dissecting, and devaluing analysis that Leopold, in his turn, applies to ornithology, languages, little Bobby Frank’s life, everything.

Everything, that is, except his romance with Loeb, which he casts in fantasy, submission, and erotic wonder. Darrow orders Nathan to put aside all facts and figures, to go the heart of his being, to know truly why he has committed this terrible crime. When Babe answers, “What if my heart is wrong?” it is as if clouds have parted and the mystery becomes crystal clear. So far as the play is concerned, Leopold needs to believe in the Nietzschean Superman, and that he and Loeb are such creatures, so that his heart can have some small hope for survival in the anatomized, meaningless, Modernist world he must live in.

Loeb, Germaine and Leopold The role of Darrow could have been performed as a knight or, heaven forbid, high priest of humanistic truth. But, thankfully, Murphy’s performance gives Darrow’s idealistic moments earthiness, vitality, and accessibility. Where is such an eloquent champion now for the better part of our nature against the death penalty? We do not live in the better future that Darrow pictured himself a part of. We have been under the leadership of people who justified themselves as being above the law and above the rest of humanity. We are still suffering the blowback.

Rating: «««

 

View Never the Sinner - the Leopold and Loeb Story

Never the Sinner: The Leopold and Loeb Story

Presented by Project 891 Theatre
Where: Chemically Imbalanced Theater, 1420 W. Irving Park Rd.
When: Through Aug 2, 2009
Tickets: $10-$15  (Box Office: 1-800-838-3006)

Pictures taken by Val Bromann.