MIDVALE — Silver Summit Theatre Company made a rather daring choice in mounting the Utah premiere of Bert V. Royal’s Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead. The company claims to “choose plays that challenge our moral and social consciences, inviting our audiences to be provoked, stimulated, and entertained.” Dog Sees God undoubtedly strays from what many Utah audiences are used to. The play is nothing short of intensely bold in the issues it chooses to address: sexual preference, teenage violence, drug use, suicide, and more.
The play revisits familiar characters from the Peanuts comic strip—Charlie Brown, his little sister Sally, Linus and Lucy, Peppermint Patty, Marcie, Shroeder, the Little Red-Headed Girl, and Pigpen—grown up and in high school. A few characters go by different names, presumably because the play was produced as an “unauthorized parody.” (Charles M. Shulz had nothing to do with it.) Van (Linus) is a stoner; Tricia (Patti) and Marcy (Marcie) are party girls; Lucy has been institutionalized for pyromania; CB (Charlie Brown) and Matt (Pigpen) are the popular kids at school, if only because they bully everyone else; and Sally and Beethoven (Shroeder) are mistreated, disliked outcasts.
Audiences should be aware of the abundant profanity and crude sexual references before purchasing tickets for this particular title. I can appreciate a script that uses profanity and difficult situations in meaningful, narrative-forwarding ways, but this show just didn’t do that. It felt as if the purpose was simply to shock, and I would imagine the shock would be even more jarring for conservative Utah audience members. I waited and waited for some redemption to come for the intense vulgarity, but never saw any justification. I haven’t encountered a production so unnecessarily vulgar in a long time.
The show begins feeling like a series of vignettes introducing the characters and establishing the setting: a more-or-less modern-day high school full of students obsessed with sex, identity, and fitting in. Beethoven (Shroeder) tends to be the brunt of most jokes and the target of Matt’s (Pigpen) aggression. No clear conflict appears until about half an hour into the hour-and-a-half-long play when the audience learns that both CB and Beethoven have questions about their sexual identities. Friendships deteriorate from there as secrets are revealed, loyalties are shattered, emotions cause rash decisions, and the group of people onstage become nothing like the beloved Peanuts characters Americans grew up with.
I’m convinced that most of the problems Silver Summit’s production encountered originated from Royal’s mediocre script. Character development wasn’t clear from one scene to the next, transitions were clunky (though slow scene changes didn’t help that either), the ending was abrupt and confusing, and it was as if the play couldn’t decide if it wanted to be a traditional, chronological narrative or a stream-of-consciousness series of vignettes and monologues. The script also conflicted with the inspiration for the characters; it portrayed most of its onstage characters as teenage stereotypes. There was the bully/jock, the party girls, the weird drama girl, the outcast loner—all emphasized by director Michele Rideout‘s costume design. But the original Peanuts characters were anything but stereotypes.
Silver Summit’s scenic design, also by director Michele Rideout, provided more than simple facts about location. Yes, the set was simple, with rotating flats to communicate locales: an exterior brick wall, lockers inside the school, Marcy’s house, CB’s backyard, etc. Mounted on the right side of the theatre, though, was a television screen where the production team displayed titles for each scene (something that could have been an addition by the production team or prompted in the script). It was an interesting addition and helped to clarify the purpose and overarching theme of many scenes. Instrumental piano versions of pop songs played during each scene change, presumably a throwback to the style of the Peanuts theme song, and at times also set the tone for an oncoming scene or reflected the emotion of a previous.
The cast was mostly solid and did their best with a mediocre script, with standout performances from Carson Kohler as CB’s Sister (Sally), Frank Castro as Matt (Pigpen), and Alison Lente as Tricia (Peppermint Patty). Kohler’s energy shone the brightest as her character’s searched for her identity, trying a few different ones every few scenes; it was as if Kohler played multiple characters, and she was one of the few onstage who experienced a clear, natural change during the course of the show. Castro’s many angry scenes left me terrified and shocked, and Lente portrayed a perfectly cruel popular girl. However, few of those on stage could have passed as high schoolers. I’m not sure, again, if that casting choice was by Silver Summit’s team or if it was prompted in the script, but the older cast was distracting and made it difficult to remember the story was happening in a high school setting.
All in all, Dog Sees God was kind of an angst-fest. It took the audience on a journey with eight teenagers at their absolute worst who didn’t seem to progress in any significant way until the last few minutes of the show—and even then, I’m not so sure that any meaningful changes occurred. This isn’t a show I can in good conscience recommend unless a potential audience member does their research, knows what they are getting into, and are completely okay with the content.