'Degrassi' alum find god in new Peanuts-inspired play

‘Degrassi’ alum find god in new Peanuts-inspired play

Lindsay Zier-Vogel, CTV.ca

What happens when the famous comic strip, “Peanuts,” meets high school drama “Degrassi”? The new play “Dog sees God.”

“Dog Sees God” explores what might have happened to the Peanuts kids once they grow up and enter high school (the play has not been authorized by the Charles M. Schulz estate).

Like the seminal series, “Degrassi: The Next Generation,” the new play tackles themes including bullying, homophobia and drug and alcohol use, while also featuring four of the show’s cast members.

It’s not what you might expect.

The play opens with Charlie Brown (who now goes by “CB,” played by Jake Epstein), holding a funeral for his dog Snoopy, who in a rabid-frenzy killed his friend, the yellow bird Woodstock.

Hemmed in by chainlink fences and bright school doors, CB spends the play pondering death and the after-life, while also questioning his sexuality.

Matt (Mike Lobel), the kid who once walked around in a cloud of dirt is now a bullying germaphobe who does drugs. Marcy and Peppermint Patty top up their milk cartons with booze at lunch and stumble about in belly tops and towering heels.

Van (Adamo Ruggiero) has replaced his tattered, old blanket with doobies and his sister (Paula Brancati) is locked away for being a pyromaniac. Even Charlie Brown’s once-benign sister is a now a goth interested in avant-garde modern-dance inspired theatre performances.

And yes, there is a pianist based on Schroeder, named Beethoven.

Not so black and white

Lobel, who many know as “Degrassi” tough-guy Jay Hogart, plays the bullying, highly sexualized, coke-snorting version of Pig Pen named Matt, and tells CTV.ca that he personally identifies with the play.

“We’ve all probably gone through some of these things, or known someone who has,” he says.

Though Lobel notes he is often cast as a nasty guy, he was a victim of bullying from grade school through to high school.

These once-difficult experiences now feed his artistry: “I remember what my bullies were like — what they said, how they acted, what they did, and how it felt to be bullied,” he says.

“It’s cathartic. I get to put myself in the shoes of someone I hated growing up. Now, I can understand them in a way.”

Ben Lewis, the actor playing Beethoven, the perpetually bullied and potentially-gay pianist, believes the overall theme of the play is one of identity.

“It’s about the search for your own sense of self, and this search never really ends,” he says. “It’s not like you graduate from high school and you’re all like ‘Oh, now I know who I am!'”

“I think it lasts your entire life,” he says.

Brancati (Jane on “Degrassi”) thinks “Dog sees God,” presents a complicated view of the bullying issue.

“The show presents the protagonist and antagonist in a way that you feel for both of them. You feel for everyone,” she says.

More heavy themes

“I’m really excited for (audience) reactions, even if they’re inappropriate,” says Epstein, who plays CB in “Dog sees God.” Viewers know him best as the bi-polar musician Craig Manning on “Degrassi.”

“Homosexuality and bullying are really important issues that need to be discussed and portrayed in a realistic fashion,” he insists.

“Not everyone will be able to deal with that, but I think it’s okay to be uncomfortable.”

Brancati agrees: “The piece isn’t preachy. It’s not supposed to be a ‘just come in and enjoy it, watch it and leave’ kind of play. It stirs emotions and makes people uncomfortable and should provoke discussion.”

“If no one’s uncomfortable then we’re not doing our job,” she laughs. “It’s supposed to be stirring things, and not just adolescents — baby boomers and older generations too. We’re hoping it’ll create dialogue between both generations.”

“We can really say what kids really do say. It’s shocking, and some of the swear words even blow my mind, but I think it’s important to call it as it is. The dialogue is actually accurate to how teenagers talk,” adds Ruggiero, known to fans as the out-of-the-closet Marco Del Rossi on “Degrassi.”

“I think a play like this is really easy to get into because it’s not all bubble-gummy.”

Siobhan Murphy, the actor playing Tricia (a grown-up Peppermint Patty), and Tatiana Maslany, who plays CB’s sister, believe the language in the play will allow younger audiences to connect with the performance.

“It’s not about the shock value, but about being able to see themselves onstage. I think it’s really important for youth to see theatre that’s in their language,” Murphy adds.

It’s ambitious, creating a play with the hopes of fostering conversation, but if any play will be successful, it’s this one. Instead of a typical theatre, “Dog Sees God” is set at a bar, with audiences lounging on black leather couches and stools.

Not only is the setting casual and intimate, for the matinee school performances, the actors stay after the show to chat about the play with students.

Audience reactions

“I just want audiences to feel something, feel anything. They could be crying when they leave, or laughing hysterically, or be really angry. Whatever it is, it’s our goal to have audiences feel something,” Alex Saslove, the actor playing Marcy, says.

Ruggiero agrees and believes that sometimes people need to have their boundaries challenged. “I think especially with the gay issue, we can offer that little bit of a push some people might need to recognize that it’s happening,” he says.

He also hopes that putting the spotlight on bullying will help both bullies reflect on the ramifications of their actions, and also draw attention to the complicity of those who turn a blind eye.

Continuing to push the social envelope

The “Degrassi’ cast members aren’t strangers to presenting difficult social themes, though Lobel notes that they have more freedom in the play than they do on the show.

“Even though ‘Degrassi’ is heralded as being a realistic portrayal of teenage life, it still comes with its limitations,” he says, noting that when on stage, they are able to use offensive language, show drug, alcohol and cigarette consumption.

“We have the freedom now to be as realistic as possible,” he says.

“So many of these characters (in the play) relate to our ‘Degrassi’ characters,” Ruggiero says. “On TV, there’s a bit of glitz and glam, but here, it’s live. We’re not in their living room but right in front of them.”

“I think that’s really awesome and I know that’s what attracted me to this project.”

“Dog Sees God” runs until April 18th at Six Degrees, 2335 Yonge St., Toronto.

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