Tuesday, June 17, 2014

Dog Sees God: A Splinter Group Lineup

By Russ Bickerstaff
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This is what happens after the comic strip. The panels drain of their color. We only see the black outlines of panels. They're empty. They are a void of color. Only the concrete grey that seems to cover everything. The silhouettes of the empty comic panels almost feel burnt onto the walls. Burt V. Royal’s Dog Dees God uses the vocabulary of Charles Schultz's mid-20th century Peanuts characters to paint a very starkly realistic portrait of what it means to come of age in the modern world. Splinter Group vividly brings that portrait  to life this month in a production directed by Jake Brockman.

It was first staged 10 years ago in New York. Not too long after that I saw a production on the east side of Milwaukee. It’s interesting seeing it again. What strikes me years later is how deftly crafted the characters are. As a group, Brockman and company have done a tremendous amount of work bringing those characters to the stage. It's one of those rare productions where the ensemble manages to work that magic that makes them appear as though they've actually known each other their whole lives. There's a kind of intimacy in long-term friendship that's very hard to fake. In most films and stage plays, we as an audience know we’re not seeing people who are actually familiar with each other, but we’re invested enough in the illusion of the story to complete the illusion. With all kinds of interesting subtleties here, the cast of Dog Sees God does a lot of that work for us. It’s always great when an ensemble can do that.

On an individual level, the actors do a really good job of rendering really interesting characters that use the old comic strip archetypes as foundations for much more complicated people. Nate Press plays Charles. Everyone calls him C.B. He’s someone who was always being criticized growing up finally manages a breakthrough in high school. That breakthrough changes everything. This isn't some heartwarming tale, though. There's darkness to growth as well. It's refreshing to see something that darkness brought to the stage in a thoughtful way. The intimacy of the studio theater environment does wonders for this sort of thing.Press excels at channeling sympathy for a character. It can be a heartbreaking performance to identify with. The script allows him plenty of room to develop depth.

Brenna Kempf plays his sister. Royal casts her as a teenaged girl desperately looking for her identity. There’s a comic drama in it that makes for a really interesting transformation over the course of a very episodic story. It’s fun to watch Kempf develop that character. There’s just enough exaggeration to make it seem comic without so much that it compromises the depth of the drama.

Emily Vitrano
plays Marcy. In the comic strip, she always came across as kind of an appendage of Patty. Royal’s depiction of the character has her trying to assert herself as an individual by trying to appeal to people on a social level. Vitrano is brilliant at delivering a complex portrayal of a teenaged girl with great potential trying to fit in. You can see deep potential flickering through her face as she interacts with people, but she’s bound by this crushing need to be accepted. It’s really fascinating. Somewhere along the line it was decided that the character would be really into Katy Perry music. I love what that seems to say about her as a person. It’s really good economy of characterization.

Towering Joe Picchetti plays Matt--the guy they all used to call Pig Pen in grade school. Here he has become a clean freak who also happens to be clinging to an alpha male status. Picchetti is a really menacing figure here. Even casual statements come across as some kind of challenge. Like Charles, he’s someone who has been criticized his whole life. He’s cast as the polar opposite of what can happen to someone who has grown-up like that. It’s contrast against the chronic uncertainty and neurosis of C.B.

Katie Merriman is cast as Lucy. The script doesn’t give her much room to play one of the more recognizable characters in the cast. She’s only in one scene, but Merriman finds a way to make quite an impression over the course of a single conversation with C.B. It’s quite an accomplishment on her part.

Rachel Zientek
plays Tricia—“Patty” from the comic strips. As near as I can make out, the playwright is largely playing Tricia as the basic loss of innocence without that much else going on. Yes, there’s a little bit of drama involving her and a character who never appears onstage, but there isn’t much depth for her to really get into. It’s kind of an interesting reversal from the comic strip that the script has her playing out as a bit more of an unwitting appendage of Marcy. Zientek plays into this dynamic quite cleverly without over-rendering the character’s vacuousness.  

Ryan Krueger plays “Beethoven.” He’s modeled after the Schroeder character from the comic strip. Royal casts him near the center of the plot as a kid who has gotten bullied a lot throughout his life. Anyone so narrowly focused in on piano to the exclusion of all else would be an easy target for bullying, but there’s more than that here for him. Krueger is absolutely beautiful in this role. There’s a thin veneer of awkwardness written into the character that is shadowed by this incredible sense of emotional complexity. Because of the character’s dynamic within the plot, it would be way too easy to overplay that awkwardness. Krueger plays strength in his own vulnerability in the role that makes for a remarkable performance.

Nathan Danzer
rounds out the cast as Van, modeled after the Linus character from the comic strip. Naturally he’s made it into high school as a stoner. (He’s smoked the ashes of his blanket.) This was a really cool performance for Danzer. The script hands him the challenge of seeming profoundly deep and profoundly inert at the same time. (It’s the archetypal comic stoner role.) It’s not easy to bring across, but Danzer manages to make Van seem like a realistic person beyond the stereotype. This is difficult enough for actual chronic marijuana smokers to pull off, so it’s quite impressive that Danzer is able to do it onstage.

Splinter Group’s production of Dog Sees God runs through June 29 at the Marian Center on 3211 S. Lake Dr. For ticket more information, visit Splinter Group online.


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