College made me pretty cynical about theater.
It was all about heady dissection of the theatrical elements. What worked? What didn’t work? What did you think of the director’s interpretation of X, Y, and Z? Were the actors effective in creating an effective show arc? And so on. Whenever we theater students would see a professional production (okay, most often just with Portland Center Stage, and mostly with Liz Huddle-directed shows), we would always analyze it as coming up way short by our beautiful, perfect, theoretical, academic standards. Ah, to be young and cocky!
Something that was rarely discussed between us theater majors was how it made an audience feel. If Peter Brook defines theater (The Empty Space) as anything with a performer and an audience, isn’t the audience’s role just as key as the performance? But in college, a thought-provoking piece was considered way cooler than an emotional one.
Which is just one part of the reason college put the hard wax seal on the bottle I had stuffed all the feelings into.
Since graduating from college, I’ve been slowly recovering from all the damage. And the wax seal has shown increasing signs of near-failure the last few months.
A month ago I went to see Grey Gardens at Portland Center Stage. Essentially a story about the complexities of mother-daughter relationships, the last moment in the show features a Brechtian moment when the daughter decides to stay living with her mother despite her personal best interests. I related heavily, and a few days ago when telling someone about that moment in the show, tears came to my eyes (crap!), although I was mostly still able to hold it together.
Then tonight, I went to see a piece directed by my friend Brian Allard, called Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead. The show assumes common knowledge of the “Peanuts” canon as a springboard to a more modern, realistic plot.
At first I was really pissed off. How dare this production make me get all verklempt in the very first scene, as the death of Snoopy–er, I mean “anonymous dog of main character named C.B.”–by rabies is described in graphic detail. How dare they kill the dog! In the first scene! How dare they kill Snoopy!
After this initial scene, we start meeting the rest of the characters in their teenaged state, as C.B. questions them about death. Pig Pen (now Matt) is now a rather scary dude with OCD, Schroeder (now Beethoven) is a loner whose father was very publicly arrested for sexually molesting him and who now carries stigma among his peers, and Tricia and Marcie are catty cheerleaders who talk about how Frieda is just enormously fat. I consider myself a significant fan of “Peanuts,” and have even been faithfully re-reading The Complete Peanuts as it has been released over the past several years. So while most audience members laughed at these modern interpretations of pop culture icons, I was just shocked: How dare they defile Peanuts this way!
Then, two characters consistently had scenes taking place within hitting distance of me, and I was really tempted as they made fun of “fat” Frieda. They were not only the least empathetic characters I’ve seen in a show in recent memory, but who evoked primal feelings of hatred I haven’t experienced since 1996 when I graduated high school. How dare they not have any redeeming qualities!
It was around that time the plot around the school’s homophobia started congealing. And if you know me, I have some pretty seriously strong feelings about homophobia. Mostly based on (you guessed it!) how I saw many of my suburban high school classmates dealing with it–the football players in physics class calling each other “queers” and goofily laughing and punching each other, as my closest friends silently struggled to accept themselves in the writing class next door. How dare they go all Brokeback on me and start tugging on one of my most sensitive heartstrings!
THEN! The play that had started as a bit of a gimmick started saying some pretty big things about high school, and life, and becoming seriously elegant. C.B., ever the “everyman,” starts wrapping up the show with the close of his letter to his pen pal. But this time, the pen pal writes back, offering reflection and caring to C.B. on his situation. In the final moments I was struggling hard to keep from crying, while listening to sniffles all around me. When the lights came up, I slunk out to the safety of the street, where I took a deep breath of fresh air and retreated in safety to start processing all I had just seen.
Stupid emotional truth in theater! Stupid awesome director! Stupid perfect casting and really-well-acted show by young actors!
Those frakkers! They almost made me cry!
The point is, unless your heart is two sizes too small like The Grinch, you will be moved by this show. So go see it, will you?
Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead