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Milwaukee's Daily Magazine for Friday, Dec. 19, 2014

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Charlie Brown and company do their signature dances - just all grown up - in Splinter Group's production of "Dog Sees God."
Charlie Brown and company do their signature dances - just all grown up - in Splinter Group's production of "Dog Sees God." (Photo: Ross Zentner)

"Dog Sees God" a divine summer miracle at Splinter Group

It was over six decades ago that Charles Schulz put pen to paper and created the Peanuts comic strip, featuring a mixed bag of kids who tumbled through life clutching blankets, sucking thumbs, playing tricks and staying kids.

At the height of its popularity, Peanuts appeared in 2,600 papers in 75 countries and 21 languages. And through all those years, those kids – Charlie Brown, Lucy, Linus, Schroeder, Peppermint Patty, Snoopy and all the rest – stayed kids.

They are all grown up, however, in the dark play "Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead," the final play of the season for Splinter Group, running through June 29. It opened to a full house Friday night.

These kids have moved from the playground and the neighborhood to a hellish high school, where the absolute worst about these teenagers steps forward and asks the audience to try and understand how absolutely horrible life can be for young people.

It’s certainly easy to see the horrible.

The play starts with CB (Charlie Brown, as played by Nate Press) writing a letter to a pen pal he wrote to when he was younger, talking about how sad he is that his wonderful dog (Snoopy) got rabies and killed a yellow bird (Woodstock) who had been friends with the dog.

The dramatic, frank picture of the bird's blood inside the doghouse and the maddened dog sitting in a corner, snapping at CB as he gently puts his hand in – combined with the fact that people came and put the dog down – gets this off to a frightening start.

The play, by Bert V. Royal, takes a decided downturn or uptick from that point, depending I guess on your point of view.

The story is a continued tale of identity. Searching for it. Defending it. Belittling it. Being ashamed of it. Switching it. All of it.

CB has a brief fling with Beethoven (a facile Ryan Krueger) much to the horror of everyone: his sister, two high school party girls, a jock who bitterly harassed Beethoven. The only one apparently unfazed by this dalliance is Van, a thinly disguised Linus who has become a doper.

The play has a tragic ending that I’m not going to give away, but let’s just say a tissue or handkerchief may be useful.

As CB, Press is simply marvelous. He has this kind of natural way about him that can scream both "Holy cow" and "Aww come on" in the same breath. He is especially touching in the scenes where he writes to his pen pal.

Krueger, who plays the oft-bullied gay student who finds his only solace is in the piano room during lunch hour, is a spirited dispirited boy. Troubled and uncertain of who or what he is, he is reluctant to find out and when he approaches that threshold, he cringes in distaste. He is a formidable young actor who provides both humor and pathos in equal measure.

Most of the humor belongs to three of the girls, Emily Vitrano and Rachael Zientek, who play a couple of the worst kind of high school party girls and snobs, and Brenna Kempf, who plays CB’s sister.

Kempf has fluctuating identity difficulties but loves the high school drama club, even though she’s the only member. She is hard at work on a one-woman play where a caterpillar becomes a platypus instead of a butterfly. Her first rendition of the play is hilarious.

Zientek has the blowzy teenager down pat. She carries a bottle of vodka in her pack and a libido that is both unmatched and unfulfilled. Vitrano plays the anguished and insecure valley girl who is catty and sultry at the same time.

This is Vitrano’s third appearance in the four-play season of the Splinter Group. She is obviously an actor of talent, but I would love to see her move out of the hot young horny babe role where she seems fixed. I think she’s got some depth to her, and I’d like for someone to give her a chance to flex her chops.

Jim Farrell created Splinter Group to do plays that are unusual and interesting, and with that as his goal, his first season has been by and large a success. "Kimberly Akimbo" and this one were clear hits; the other two, "Mr. Marmalade" and "Trailer Park Prophecies," were a slightly mixed bag.

But finishing with "Dog Sees God" is fitting because there were no dogs in this season, and that portends good things for season two.

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