November 16, 2007

Life from the strip to the stage
by David Ollington

In the back room of XS Lighting, Sound & Visualization at 1632 Broadway, packed shoulder to shoulder in a small black box theatre space, witness the touching Dog Sees God.

CB (Matthew Koenen) and Van (Sean Hogge) discuss important issues in Dog Sees God.

It’s here the audience squeezes uncomfortably into seats. On the evening of Nov. 10, a set piece fell over and a crewmember crawled out of it. Yet, the astounding manifestation of this lovely work far outweighs such inconveniences and unscripted surprises.

The gifted and youthful impresario Steven Eubank imaginatively staged Bert V. Royal’s play in a challenging space. Royal dipped into issues of tolerance, prejudice, harassment and adolescent angst. Eubank made it dance.

The award-winning Royal left his West Hollywood home to work directly with Eubank on the show. Following the closing night performance, Royal, Eubank and the cast will participate in a question/answer with the audience, followed by a closing night reception.

Royal based his work on Charles M. Schultz’ “Peanuts” comic strip. What would happen to those characters a good decade later, in high school? His format follows closely the rhythm of a comic strip, short vignettes with punch lines and an abrupt extinguish of the stage lights. This not only feels like a comic strip onstage, but also reflects the pacing of the 1967 Broadway musical hit You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown.

Royal veils somewhat the identity of each character. We easily pick out Charlie Brown (Matthew Koenen). The others call him “CB,” and he opens the show speaking aloud a letter to his pen pal, mourning the death of his dog.

“I don’t know if you remember, but I had a beagle,” Koenen delivers. The actors never utter the word “Snoopy.” We know “CB’s Sister” (the actual character name listed in the program) as Sally (Jessie Ann). We figure out that the pothead “Van” is Linus (Sean Hogge), once we hear how CB with the help of Van’s sister burnt Van’s blanket. (Van mixed the ashes of the blanket with pot and smoked it.)

Matching up the characters with the comic strip names makes up a good chunk of the fun watching Dog Sees God. The assertive and verbose Peppermint Patty became the horny, buxom and trendy Tricia (Kelly Jo Blake). Mandy Mook plays the bespectacled Marcy, Tricia’s compatriot. Royal chose Marcy as the only character with the original name given by Charles M. Schultz, though Schultz spelled it “Marcie.”

(l to r) Tricia (Kelly Jo Blake) and Marcy (Mandy Mook) spike their lunch milk.

Royal made the bigoted Matt (Alex Saxon) the most difficult character to connect to his comic-strip name. Matt makes takes every opportunity to make lewd and suggestive comments to young women. He homophobically harasses Beethoven. Several scenes into the piece, he expresses a compulsion for cleanliness, repeatedly using hand sanitizer. Tricia says he “used to wallow in filth. A virtual cloud of dirt followed him everywhere he went.” CB’s Sister taunts and enrages him by calling him “Pigpen.”

Royal and Eubank infused humor through most of the evening. Extreme, hormonal, teenage compulsions, drug use and popularity provide fertile source therefore. Matt’s prejudice incites the more serious component onstage, despite the many laughs Saxon garners with Matt’s nasty remarks. The mystery of his childhood, comic strip identity darkens his presence.

Through the course of one intermission-free act, Dog Sees God makes surprising and subtle shifts from silly and ridiculous to frightening and tragic.

Technically, Dog Sees God is a non-musical play. Eubank managed to incorporate musical theatre elements without detracting from the action. He sculpted athletic movement onstage. Kelly Jo Blake as Tricia in particular moves beautifully. Eubank incorporated actual dancing; one brief waltz segment literally soars off the tiny stage. And he inserted perfect musical choices in between scenes, songs about dogs, music from “Peanuts” television specials and Chopin.

(l to r) The gang discusses their friend Beethoven in the cafeteria: CB (Matthew Koenen), Marcy (Mandy Mook), Van (Sean Hogge), CB's Sister (Jessie Ann), and Tricia (Kelly Jo Blake).

CB’s monologues to his pen pal frame the action of the play. In the final scene, the actors stand and simply state words of great profundity and grief. Eubank insightfully simplified the actor’s work at this poignant culmination. We often see actors histrionically emoting powerful passages; this often imposes upon the playwright’s work. Here, these gifted, young actors set aside their egos to allow Royal’s words to land. And land they do. The actors don’t cry. The audience cries.

Dog Sees God closes Nov. 17. Visit or call 816-224-3004.

* * *

In southwest Missouri, the Springfield 2nd Stage Theatre secured the rights, selected a cast and rehearsed a production of Dog Sees God. The actors arrived at the venue Nov. 2 for opening to find the fire marshal had closed the theatre.

Steven Eubank graduated from Missouri State University in Springfield, as did two of the cast members and the stage manager for the Kansas City production. Eubank Productions reached out to this homeless production. On the evening of Sunday, Nov. 18, at XS Lighting in KC, the Springfield cast will perform Dog Sees God. Tickets are $10, curtain at 7 p.m.

Royal in cahoots with Eubank made revisions on the script, so the Springfield actors will be presenting the published version.

David Ollington can be contacted at


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