, Newburyport, MA

March 20, 2013

Modern-day Peanuts gang takes NHS cast to states

By Jim Sullivan

---- — NEWBURYPORT — Snoopy is dead.

For the first time in Newburyport High School’s history, its Theatre Department is moving on to the Dramafest State Finals and a deceased Joe Cool is what has gotten them there.

It’s part of the world of Bert V. Royal’s “Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead,” a re-imaging of Charles Schulz’s beloved Peanuts characters and what they might be like if they were teenagers growing up in today’s world.

“Teenagers feel in that kind of in-between zone,” drama teacher and show director Lisa Zaleski said. “Sometimes they’re trying to be adult, sometimes they still want to be a kid and they get caught in between. And some of the choices these characters make as teenagers, they put them in some pretty ugly situations.”

The 40-minute show does indeed deal with some very adult themes such as drugs, alcohol and even suicide and is intended for mature audiences only.

“It does have a lot of adult content,” Zaleski said. “But ultimately, it is about kids being themselves. And being accepted for who they are.”

Cast members are Aisha Chodat, Hunter Gouldthorpe, Christian Doyle, Kyle McIntire, Michaela Good, Kristen Emerson, Kate Finn and Jordan Dunn-Pilz who plays CB, aka, Charlie Brown.

“At this point in his life, he’s questioning a lot of things,” Dunn-Pilz said of his character. “He’s lacking confidence and there’s a lack of hope after his dog dies. Everything kind of goes south. Where he’s hopeful as a kid, now he’s kind of lacking that hope and this story is kind of about him trying to regain that in the end.”

Dunn-Pilz said playing a teenage Charlie Brown isn’t much different than living as a teenager himself.

“The playwright did a really good job of capturing the average teenager,” Dunn-Pilz said. “The emotions (CB) feels and the questions he is asking aren’t that far off from what I feel myself.”

A major topic addressed in the show is bullying and Zaleski said it is what has provoked the most response along the way.

“To be able to address the bullying with such honesty is very important,” she said. “For instance, when we performed in our first round, there were kids from other schools who were in tears.

“One of our kids is playing a gay character who was ostracized for being gay. And we have other kids coming up to us and saying, `Thank you for acknowledging that. It is very important to me.’ I just feel compelled to tell kids to be themselves. That’s why I love shows like this.”

Chodat, who plays CB’s sister, Sally, said talking about the issues as a theater group hasn’t been as much hard as it has been very serious.

“And I think the whole cast takes it seriously and that is what we focused on,” she said.

That sensitivity to the material helped Newburyport get past Cambridge, Attleboro, Peabody and Malden in the Dramafest semifinals March 9. The Newburyport troupe will now be performing against Weston and 12 other schools at the finals tomorrow night at John Hancock Hall in Boston.

“I now have bragging rights,” Dunn-Pilz said of being part of the first NHS production to make the finals. “I get to go back to all my (alumni) friends and point a finger in their face and say, `I won.’ But really, I’m just happy for the department.”

“It feels cool that our hard work paid off so much,” Chodat agreed.

If all this is a little too heavy for some, the NHS Theatre Department will be presenting the flip side to the Peanuts coin next month when the troupe performs a production of the all-age-appropriate “You’re a Good Man Charlie Brown.”