A chat with director Trip Cullman and cast members of the unauthorized "Peanuts" parody Dog Sees God.
This dark comedy is billed as an unauthorized parody. "The very first thing that happens in the play is that you realize Snoopy got rabies and ate Woodstock," says director Trip Cullman. "It's doing violence to our nostalgia, our feelings of comfort and safety vis-à-vis our childhood." But Dog Sees God doesn't just go for shock value. "What it's really trying to examine is the loss of innocence that inevitably accompanies growing up," Cullman continues. "Bert has used the comic strip characters as a perfect metaphor for that. When you think of comic strip characters, they're being controlled by a higher authority -- i.e., the illustrator. What happens in this play is that, when the lights come up, God has left the building. The person who controls and guides the characters is no longer there, so they're left to fend for themselves and acquire their own identities."
According to Cullman, the Charles Schulz estate has not interfered with the production, but Dog Sees God falls under the protection of parody laws anyway. "We're trying to set this balance between not overtly referencing the comic strip and, at the same time, making funny, sly allusions to it," he states. To that end, Charlie Brown is called "CB" for most of the show, while the other character names are similarly disguised -- "Van" instead of Linus Van Pelt, "Tricia" rather than Peppermint Patty, etc. Inevitably, the play has drawn comparisons to the Tony Award-winning musical Avenue Q, an adult version of Sesame Street.
Cullman feels that the familiarity of these childhood icons gives audience members who grew up with them a context for examining adult-oriented issues. "The 'Peanuts' strip had a gentle melancholy running through it," he comments. "Now, it's 10 years later and there's nothing gentle in this world. It's apocalyptic, and I think that mirrors the world in which we're living right now. Dog Sees God has some really dark, serious things going on, but because the envelope is familiar and comforting, that may enable the audience to stomach the kinds of things they're going to see and experience while watching the play."
Although Cullman never really followed the comic strip or watched the "Peanuts" TV specials when he was younger, he quickly became an expert as he prepared to direct this production. The version of Dog Sees God on view at the Century Center differs slightly from the one seen at the Fringe: "I felt the shift from the initial satirical mode of the play to something much darker was a little abrupt," Cullman remarks, "so I suggested a scene that I think bridges the gap between the two sections."
Over the last couple of years, Cullman has earned a reputation for being a director to watch. He credits Mike Nichols (with whom he worked on both The Seagull in Central Park and the HBO version of Angels in America) and Joe Mantello (whom he's assisted on numerous projects) as having most influenced him. Fresh out of the Yale directing program in 2003, Cullman helmed the critically acclaimed premiere production of Jonathan Tolins' The Last Sunday in June. He earned raves for his work on Adam Bock's Swimming in the Shallows this past summer and recently directed Sarah Schulman's new play Manic Flight Reaction at Playwrights Horizons. Following Dog Sees God, he'll be directing spring productions of Arabian Night by German playwright Roland Schimmelpfenning and Glen Berger's The Wooden Breeks for MCC.
Cullman has assembled a top-notch cast of young actors for Dog Sees God, including Eddie Kaye Thomas, Keith Nobbs, and Logan Marshall-Green. Thomas, best known for portraying Finch in the American Pie films, plays the central role of CB. "It's a wonderful script," he says. "I was thoroughly entertained when I read it and figured that would translate to doing it." Nobbs, who portrays Van, agrees: "You expect it to be a one-note joke, but it completely subverts that."
Says Marshall-Green, "I did a reading of the play last May and fell instantly in love with Trip and Bert and Dede [Harris, the show's producer]. It was obvious from the reaction of the audience that this was already a great piece." Following that reading, he and Cullman worked together on Swimming in the Shallows, in which the actor portrayed a mako shark who becomes involved in a sexual relationship with a young gay man. "Logan has killer good looks but loves to play character parts and be challenged," says Cullman. To that end, the director cast him against type as Beethoven (that's Schroeder to "Peanuts" fans), a quiet kid who's picked on by his peers because of his homosexuality. Beethoven's changing relationship with CB sets the stage for some of the play's darkest moments.