Wednesday, December 16, 2015

Review: Why Theater and 90s Teen TV Dramas Should Not Be Mixed

Once upon a time in a decade called the 90s, there was a television station called the WB. This channel was filled with an assortment of morally conscience teenage dramas including "Seventh Heaven" and "Dawson's Creek”. And apparently Bert V. Royal's Dog Sees God. In Queens Shakespeare and What Dreams May Co.'s radically interpreted production of the Bert V. Royal play, the Peanut-inspired gang journey through a tonally confused dramedy about teen problems that manages to minimize the heart of the text.
photo by Joseph Sebring
Co-directed by Chris Rivera and Bloo Rodriguez, Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead gets the 90s treatment as CB and his friends deal with bullying, homophobia, drugs, sex, and all-around drama. The script by Bert V. Royal is celebrated. His characters are rich. The story is accessible. But this production seemed to stray, attempting to reinvent something that didn't need reinventing. Despite premiering in 2004, Royal's story is timeless. Yet Rivera and Rodriguez decided to give it a time. A decade in fact. It's a bold decision that didn't quite have justification in doing so. There's a natural nostalgia factor with the Peanuts element of the script. And sure, there's nostalgia with the decade between the clothing and the soundtrack that accompanied. But they seemed to severely get in the way of the vision. It became tonally a mess. It's one thing to bring your own interpretation to a text but in modern theater, when it strays from the integrity of the text, the production is called into question. There are comic moments that Royal drops into his story. But they are earned and necessary with the darker themes. But the 90s TV concept added a campy factor that directly hurt the playing of some of the important scenes. The tone post suicide destroyed the emotional arc of Dog Sees God. Rivera and Rodriguez seemed to make a joke of it, something that is disappointing. By having one of the characters comically burst out into fits of hysterical crying, it pulled all focus away from Royal’s therapy session where the characters reflect on the situation. And this was quite common in the playing of the story. And it all began with a 90s inspired TV credit video sequence at the top of the show. It set the tone of the vision, but it did not provide a happy marriage. The staging of the show was fairly simple, using little scenic elements. But the transitions bringing them on and off were inexplicable. Using a 90s soundtrack as the transition music, the actors comically danced their way to the beat of the song. The trouble with using songs that are so iconic, including Paula Cole’s “I Don’t Want to Wait”, which happens to be the theme song for “Dawson’s Creek”, is they evoke laughter from the audience. And after leaving scenes that are emotionally grounded, the comical dancing and funny song accompaniment, it causes the tone to be lost. To put it bluntly, the songs killed the vibe. Toward the end of the show, the transitions seemed to lack the dancing, causing the transition vocabulary to be inconsistent. It was almost as if Rivera and Rodriguez ran out of time to choreograph.
The acting company went over-the-top for unnecessary laughs. You can’t fault them if they were asked to tap into an acting style that may not have best served them and the story best. As CB, Matthew Pohlman played into stereotypes of an adult trying to play a teen. Pohlman seemed to struggle finding truth in his performance. When CB was tender, Pohlman was natural. But when CB had sudden emotional outbursts, it sadly just came across as bad 90s acting. Falling into the same trap of over-emoting, Jonathan Emerson as Beethoven was gloomily emo. Between his body language to the delivery of his text, Emerson faltered as the emotionally vital character. Kate McMorran as CB’s Sister was the perfect annoying little sister, but part of the arc of the character is her ever-changing identity. Unfortunately, McMorran was stuck in the same rut. There were, however, some saving graces in the company. And they were Van and Tricia. Played by Colin Hinckley and Bryna Kearney. Hinckley and Kearney were able to create characters that still had the elements the directors were seeking yet manage to have truth within. Hinckley had the stoner aspect of Van to fall back when he was goofy, but his sobering moments were tender. Kearney’s Tricia was a grunge princess that you probably avoided in the halls, but you witnessed the pain inside.
Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead is a script that has been making its way through theaters so creating a production that sticks out above the rest can be hard. To Rivera, Rodriguez, and the company’s credit, they boldly went for a concept and, for the most part, stuck with it. But that doesn’t mean it was remotely successful.