Sex, drugs, and rock and roll are probably the last things you’d expect to find in Charles Schulz’s timeless comic strip, and the trailer for the upcoming Peanuts movie is as G-rated as they come. The Guild Hall’s latest production: Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead, however, isn’t family-friendly fare.
Toronto-based director Clinton Walker describes the play as “Peanuts meets Degrassi, late-night-style.” Filled with mature topics such as sexual abuse, drug use, and suicide, Dog Sees God loses the naive innocence of four-panel puns and holiday TV specials.
It’s not all heavy, though. As a parody, the play does have the requisite humour sprinkled in. There’s a good balance between heavy-hitting drama and comedy, says Walker.
Fans of the comic will be able to recognize who the characters are, says Walker. “However, be prepared for something completely different.” Childhood activities give way to pot-smoking, partying, and promiscuity.
Indeed, the characters have such a wild side to them that Walker found it difficult to root for them. “For me, I kind of struggled,” he says. “I was like, ‘Gosh, how do I like these people?’” And with such bad-apple roles, Walker also faces an uphill battle to make sure the audience could connect to the teenage punks.
It’s easy in parody to distance yourself and laugh at characters or situations rather than empathizing, he says. “I always find that the funniest experiences I’ve had in the theatre as an audience member is when we actually care about the people that we’re watching.”
To forge that connection between high-school hooligans and the audience, Walker tries to keep the characters grounded and sincere. If you portray your shortcomings in an honest way, there is room for that rapport, he says. Everyone has faults and issues they are dealing with. “Bringing those to life on stage in the most honest way is the best way to connect in a meaningful way,” says Walker.
Hopefully the audience is able to associate with these messed-up teens more than Walker could with the original Peanuts. “There was something really sedate about it that I didn’t get,” he admits. “I thought those children were strange. I didn’t identify with them.”
No matter the audience’s affections to the venerable daily strip, it’s good to have a foundation to build on, says Walker. Parody is becoming more in vogue, he says, as familiar characters and settings help audiences delve in quicker and deeper to the performance. “This really is on trend right now for theater,” he says.
Dog Sees God isn’t Walker’s first time north of 60 – the Guild veteran already has come up for five plays, the most recent being The Book of Esther back in 2014. “Any time the Guild asks me to come I always say yes,” Walker says. “I like the way my brain works up here.”
And while he’s in town, Walker endeavours to use the opportunity to bolster the Guild’s (already impressive) acting talent. Teaching and mentoring the local actors is something Walker enjoys bringing to the table. “For me it’s really important that this isn’t only a theatre, but it’s a training ground,” he says.
One way Walker aims to teach is by cultivating an ecosystem where actors feel encouraged to experiment and try new things. That could be particularly important for this production, as the play does have a certain edge to it. “The language is really racy,” says Walker. “I thought I would be chased out of town on the opening night.”
Dog Sees God premiered on Oct. 1 and continues until Saturday, Oct. 17. Tickets are $23 for Wednesdays and Thursdays and $25 on Fridays and Saturdays. Tickets are available at Whitehorse Motors, at the door or online at guild.brownpapertickets.com. All shows start at 8 p.m.
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