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Charlie Brown is dead. Schroeder has sold out his talent for pop celebrity. Linus, suffering from PTSD after a short tour in Iraq, has transitioned from his blanket to a pocket hanky. And Pigpen has become homeless as well as Absolutely Filthy, incessantly spinning a Hula Hoop both to enclose himself in his own delusional sphere and to keep everyone else out. Like The Big Chill with the Peanuts gallery, the old gang, now thirty-something, reunites for a funeral radically changed and fundamentally not at all.
Although called by their Charles M. Schulz names within the play, in the program every character is designated as a euphemism. As a protagonist, “The Mess” (playwright Brendan Hunt) cuts a mordant tragic figure, part Hamlet (which he reads in flashback as an undergraduate, first as CliffsNotes and then in the original), and part raving Lear on the heath. “The Bereaved” sister, Sally Brown (Shannon Nelson), loved him back in college, but Pigpen, after being destructively seduced by Peppermint Patty, now a fashion designer with a fake French accent (Rachel Germaine), deserted her without a word to disappear into vagabondage. Tortured by inner demons — among them a hilarious hallucination of a conversation with a fey and eminently sensible Jesus — and rejected by his old pals, including sports-networking owner Lucy (Anna Douglas as “The Big Sister”), the ineffectual Linus (Robbie Winston as “The Little Brother”), Schroeder (Curt Bonnem as “The Pop Star”), Marcie (Jaime Andrews, now “Marcia” and an ocular surgeon) and even the African-American character, Franklin, whose name no one else can remember (KJ Middlebrooks as “His Honor”). Pigpen inappropriately strips himself naked outside the church and gets hauled away to jail, as his former friends drop a dime on him.
This may all sound like sophomoric parody, but Hunt has fashioned a genuinely intense and compelling drama out of these elements, particularly in a harrowing, bilious first act. There’s no reason the Peanuts characters can’t be employed like archetypes out of Greek drama, since arguably the comic strip already fulfilled that function in our own time. There’s a lot of bad-boy mocking on the surface, yet the character of the deranged Pigpen is conceived with true heroic stature, his mental illness meticulously elaborated and uncannily pertinent to the human condition. Hunt respects the integrity of Schulz’s creations even as he makes vicious, and hilarious, sport of them. This is an ambitious play that seeks to replicate the original’s universality with a raw contemporary sensibility, careening through flashbacks-within-flashbacks to create a persuasive panorama of up-to-the-moment anxiety and neurosis. No coincidence that Charlie Brown (Scott Golden as “The Deceased”) had found great success as an empathetic child psychiatrist.
This many-layered text is grandly served by the consistently pitch-perfect ensemble and inspired, imaginative direction by Jeremy Aldridge. The piece was developed originally as part of Sacred Fools’ continuing late-night series Serial Killers, yet it has greatly surpassed its sketch origins. The second act perhaps overextends development of some of the ideas beyond their optimal weight, while entropy tends to move the action more toward pathos and dramaturgical correctness than the cheeky and impassioned first hour. It does feature cameos from Archie Andrews, Cathy, Bil Keane and the little red-haired girl, so it may be churlish to complain — which is perhaps part of the play’s point.
Venue: Sacred Fools (runs through Mar. 10)
Cast: Brendan Hunt, Shannon Nelson, Jaime Andrews, Curt Bonnem, Anna Douglas, Robbie Winston, KJ Middlebrooks, Scott Golden, Jessica Sherman, Rachel Germaine, Kiff Scholl, Dennis Delsing, Addi Gash, Amir Levi, Ed Goodman
Director: Jeremy Aldridge
Playwright: Brendan Hunt
Set designer: Stephanie Kerley Schwartz
Lighting designer: Douglas Gabrielle
Sound designer: Daniel Holl
Costume designer: Jaimie Froemming
Music: Michael Teoli
Producer: Brian Wallis
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