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Peanuts characters come out of their shells at SOU

Southern Oregon University's theater department explores the teenage lives of Charles Schulz's (

spelling corrected from earlier version) beloved Peanuts gang with its production of Bert V. Royal's "Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead."

The play's earliest incarnation won Best Overall Production at the New York 2004 International Fringe Festival.

It is risky to build a dramatic play on such iconic characters. The Peanuts comic strip spawned a number of feature films, two stage musicals, a TV series and several TV specials. But because these are characters so many have known and adored since childhood, the audience has an affection for them from the start.

For legal reasons, Royal could not use the characters' real names, but heavy hints let the audience know who they are. Part of the pleasure in seeing the play is connecting the new characters with their old comic-strip selves.

These modern incarnations are messed up and dysfunctional. It's a credit to the playwright, director Kyle Haden, and the talented young actors that they manage to evoke the spirit of the cartoon while giving a real humanity to the characters.

Though they are mainly shallow adolescent stereotypes, their angst and confusion come across as they navigate a sea of coming-of-age issues.

The play could easily have been silly and gimmicky, but its subject matters and the strong cast give it a broader dimension, and like Schulz's comic strip, offer laughs paired with thought-provoking moments.

The play opens with CB mourning the death of his lovable dog, a scene which, like much of the play, teeters between comedy and tragedy. Like his younger, comic-strip counterpart, he philosophizes about the afterlife and the nature of the universe as he meets up with his old gang.

The tightly directed play moves quickly as the audience meets these new Peanuts characters, some pleasant and some not. A simple and flexible set is smoothly rearranged for each scene by a practiced stage crew, putting the focus on the actors.

The script tackles weighty subjects such as substance abuse, religion, homophobia, school bullying and suicide. At times, it is on the verge of sounding like an after-school television special because of some heavy-handed writing. The cast, however, particularly Josh Simpson as CB and Erin O'Connor as CB's sister, manages to pull it back from the edge. In the end, it offers a touching message of hope for modern teens in a rough, three-dimensional world.

Despite some very funny moments, including O'Connor's hilarious "metamorphosis" solo, "Dog Sees God" is a drama, not intended for kids, and contains a fair amount of profanity.

Angela Decker is a freelance writer living in Ashland. Reach her at decker4@gmail.com.