TAMPA — Some years back, a poster that was popular in college dorms showed Disney cartoon characters, from Mickey Mouse to Snow White, graphically and perversely engaged in all manner of sexual activities.
There are more than a few moments in Bert V. Royal's Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead that offer little more than that type of humor. Royal's play revolves around the iconic characters from the Peanuts comic strip, now grown into adolescence. Linus is a stoner who has smoked his blanket; Pig-Pen, Marcie and Peppermint Patty get drunk and do sexual high jinks.
Fortunately, though, the heart of Royal's play is true to the heart of Charles Schultz's original comic strip and its characters. And when it avoids cheap jokes and some inappropriate violence, Dog Sees God is phenomenal entertainment, sometimes hysterically funny, sometimes sweetly philosophical and ultimately poignant.
In one opening weekend performance, Jobsite Theater Company's production of Dog Sees God drew enthusiastic applause from its audience after almost every scene, and a spontaneous standing ovation at the show's end. Both the play and production merited the response.
A large cast of Jobsite regulars, directed by David M. Jenkins, excels during the mildly substantial passages that are the play's strength. Shawn Paonessa's CB (the names have been changed but the characters are instantly recognizable) is thoroughly appealing, with just the right blend of warmth, wisdom and social awkwardness. Summer Bohnenkamp-Jenkins is wondrous in her one scene as Lucy, who has been institutionalized after committing a crime but seems to have benefited from medication and therapy. Spencer Meyers gives a heart-breaking performance as Beethoven (actually Schroeder), who's been victimized and persecuted consistently throughout his adolescence.
Perhaps more impressively, the cast helps get the play through its weak spots. Meg Heimstead and Katrina Stevenson, as Marcie and Tricia (or Peppermint Patty), are entertaining in one overlong scene that seems designed to be merely annoying. And Richard Kennedy (a new stage name for Ryan McCarthy, returning after a long absence in local theater) is downright scary as Pig-Pen, now called Matt, who has grown into a hateful and homophobic brute.
Brian Smallheer's set is simple — open and structural but nonspecific — and at first quite striking. But once the characters take the stage it becomes barely noticeable. Because the Peanuts strip and cartoons were scenically minimalist, Smallheer's set serves the material beautifully.
The title, by the way, refers obliquely to Snoopy, whose death just before the play begins sparks CB to renew his familiar philosophical quest for meaning and identity, which drives the action of the play.
There's obviously an element of gimmickry involved in transferring Peanuts characters to another milieu, and playwright Royal does sometimes lean on that gimmick. When he does, his play varies uncomfortably in tone, from Cheech and Chong-style comedy to intense drama.
But the gimmick also allows Royal to give us characters most of us have some affection for, and whose backstories are part of our collective subconscious. That eliminates the need for a lot of exposition, and results in a dense and compact play that's hugely entertaining and even mildly thought-provoking.