Santa Ana’s Theatre Out continues its 2012 season with one of the Orange County LGBT theater’s finest “straight play” productions to date, Bert V. Royal’s Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead. Directed by Scenie winner Tito Oritz at his inspired best and featuring a remarkably talented young cast, Dog Sees God is not only must-see theater for avid OC and L.A. playgoers, it ought to be required viewing for students from middle school up. Briefly put, Dog Sees God makes for a hilarious, thought-provoking, and ultimately transformative evening of theater.

 Dog Sees God imagines the lives of a group of high schoolers suspiciously similar to teenage versions of Charlie Brown and the rest of the Peanuts gang. Though Royal’s comedy “has not been authorized or approved in any manner by the Charles M. Schultz Estate,” fans of the comic strip will recognize CB (whose pet beagle has just been put down for rabies, though not before tearing to shreds “a little yellow bird who used to hang around”), Beethoven (a sensitive i.e. gay piano prodigy), Tricia (née Patricia formerly Patty, of the Peppermint variety) and her best friend Marcy (who used to spell her name with an –ie), Matt (a once dirt-cloud-plagued kid turned tough guy germo-homophobe), and Van (a stoner currently mourning the death-by-fire of his beloved blanket). CB’s sister and Van’s (neither of whom are referred to by name) complete the gang.

The late Mr. Schultz probably never imagined Charlie and his friends growing up quite like this, but then again who in 1950 (the year Peanuts made its debut) could have imagined the world in which Dog Sees God’s teenage protagonists live their very contemporary lives?

Though CB (Gregory Cesena) is still living pretty much the same mundane day-to-day existence (and mooning over a cute red-headed classmate), the lives of his friends have changed in unexpected ways. His sister (Amanda Ward) changes religions as often as she changes clothes, and though last week she was on a Christian kick, this week she’s gone Wiccan and has started practicing white magic. Linus—sorry, make that Van (Jeff Budner)—has turned pothead, and offers CB a “bud” as he waits for a delivery from “the Doober.” No longer “Pigpen,” Matt (Michael Piznarski) now fancies himself ghetto and is never without a bottle of antibacterial gel at hand. Van’s sister (Courtney Ortega) is still putting up that sign stating “The Doctor is IN” and doling out advice at 5¢ a pop, though now she does it from a mental facility where she’s been institutionalized following an incident in which she set the Little Red-Haired Girl’s hair on fire. Tricia and Marcy (Kristin Michelle Keating and Kelly Ehlert) spend most of their time trash-talking “fucking-fatty-fat-fucking-fatass-Frieda” (and her naturally curly hair) and not so surreptitiously spiking their cafeteria drinks with vodka.

 These two “mean girls” are not the only ones putting down classmates. Matt is so vicious that the mere sight of Beethoven né Schroeder (Michael Phillips) sets him off on a rant. “You see the way that fucking faggot looked at me!” he asks CB. “I fucking hate that faggot!” When CB tries to make amends to Beethoven for Matt’s name-calling, Beethoven will have none of it. Former close friend CB has, it seems, harassed Beethoven for years and once even dislocated his shoulder. “Don’t say you were just messing with me,” insists Beethoven, who has been afraid to eat in the school cafeteria since then. “No wonder kids bring guns to school and shoot you fuckers down.”

Still, CB (who is after all still Charlie Brown at heart) invites Beethoven to a beer bash that night and won’t take no for an answer. At the kegger, when Matt starts to get in Beethoven’s face about being where he’s not wanted, CB shows everyone there that Beethoven is wanted by at least one of the party guests, namely CB.

 From this point on, Dog Sees God becomes much more than just a funny and often raunchy comic gem. It is that, indeed, but in playwright Royal’s hands, it is also a touching love story, a look at the causes of homophobia, a plea for acceptance, and more timely now than ever in the wake of Dan Savage’s It Gets Better campaign, whose message remains unheard by a tragic number of LGBT teens.

Cesena’s powerful performance as CB anchors the production and keeps Dog Sees God reality-based throughout its intermissionless ninety-minutes. In supporting roles, Budner’s droll stoner exhibits terrific comic timing as do Keating’s Tricia and Ehlert’s Marcy, the latter of whom don’t miss a single of the duo’s Mean Girls laughs. Blonde stunner Keating in particular, on her way to a Ph.D in Drama at UC Irvine, is one to watch. Phillips gives Beethoven just the right blend of sweetness, anger, and good-heartedness, while Piznarski’s thuggish Matt reveals the consequences of repressed sexual longing combined with an OCD obsession with germs. Ward is a standout too as CB’s goth sister, with special snaps due her hilariously over-the-top Caterpillar To Platypus monolog. Ortega’s single scene opposite Cesena is one of the production’s best, as Van’s pyromaniacal sister continues to snatch away that football, figuratively speaking this time round.

 Scenic designers Ortiz and Joey Baital and scenic artist Michelle Tandy have created a simple but very effective set with a black-and-white comics look, one which allows for instantaneous scene changes facilitated by David C. Carnevale’s excellent lighting design. Carnevale’s costumes are all just-right choices too. Chelsea Mundy is stage manager.

By the time Dog Sees God reaches its transcendent final moments, Royal, Ortiz, and cast will likely have had you in the palm of their hands from CB’s opening monolog to a closing scene that’s likely to touch all but the hardest, most homophobic heart. And isn’t that precisely what LGBT theater ought to accomplish?

Theatre Out, The Empire Theatre, 202 N. Broadway, Santa Ana.

–Steven Stanley
May 19, 2012
Photos: Stephen Rack

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