Theatre of the Reconstruction

“Theatre of the Reconstruction Children’s Theatre presents You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown,” the flyer said, so off I went to the dingy, sort-of-rehabbed garage that this Wicker Park-based experimentally oriented troupe calls home. What’s this going to be like? I wondered. A spike-haired Schroeder? Snoopy with a studded dog collar? Linus and Lucy engaged in incestuous groping? Or, more off-the-wall yet–would Charlie Brown actually get that little redheaded girl?

Michael Rassel’s staging offers nothing so bizarre. But this raffish, energetic, very funny production does break from tradition–by avoiding the let’s-pretend-we’re-comic-strip-characters approach this show often falls prey to. Even better, it’s free of the schlock sentimentality that has plagued Peanuts since the mid-1960s, when the strip stopped being a witty entertainment and turned into the bottom-line mass-merchandising phenomenon that has made Charles Schulz (according to Forbes magazine’s estimate) one of the ten richest men in the U.S. entertainment business.

In fact, I haven’t laughed so much at a Peanuts strip in years as I laughed at this production, which is Theatre of the Reconstruction’s first attempt at a weekend-matinee kids’ show. (It certainly won’t be the last, judging from the nearly full house at last Sunday’s opening–nearly all neighborhood families, according to the mailing list people were signing in the lobby.) Rassel’s Charlie Brown has all the wry, edgy, anxious humor that made Schulz’s early strips so lastingly funny. Born in 1950, Peanuts in its early stages was a close cousin to the sociopsychoanalytic cartoons of Jules Feiffer and the stage shows of Mike Nichols and Elaine May; using children rather than adults as his characters allowed Schulz not only to reach a broader family market but to use children’s problems as a metaphor for adults’.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, the musical by Clark Gesner (not Gresner, as printed on Theatre of the Reconstruction’s program) that made its off-Broadway debut in 1967, was conceived for adult actors playing kids (the original Charlie Brown was Gary Burghoff, later of TV’s M*A*S*H). But too often the adult actors try to act like they’re playing kids. Theatre of the Reconstruction’s cast know better; they play their kids as adults. As a result, the petty but persistent worries that nag at these characters–Charlie Brown’s failure ever to fly a kite or receive a valentine, Lucy’s rage at not being able to be a queen (“It’s probably just a matter of knowing the right people”), Linus’s terror of losing his security blanket, Schroeder’s attempts to bring order into a chaotic world with his beloved Beethoven–remind us that our own grown-up hang-ups are just as infantile.

Much of the effectiveness of this very enjoyable show is due to its rough-edged simplicity. Set designer James Thoresen utilizes the basic pitch-black decor of the theater–the uncheery opposite of what one usually sees at children’s shows–by decorating the stage with a few white set pieces: Snoopy’s dog house, a park bench, a block, a tree. They stand out against the theater’s darkness to suggest an existential comment about humanity’s refusal to give in to the universe’s emptiness. (It’s also a neat reversal of Schulz’s original design strategy, which employed more background white space than usual in order to make his strip stand out against the clutter of the comics page.)

The visual quirkiness is carried through in the actors’ oddball characterizations. The heart of the show, as it should be, is Ric Sadler’s at once hilarious and nerve-jangling Charlie Brown. Knowing that he can’t capture the deadpan drollery of the cartoon original, Sadler lays Charlie’s desperation right out for everyone to see, with a manic edge that, recalling Gene Wilder at his early best, wins our pity–and also makes us want to shake this eternally self-defeating, all too recognizable everyman and say Stop it!

Sadler is complemented by Julia Maish’s brassy, common, intrusive Lucy, who eerily recalls Leona Helmsley as she brassily conducts her own popularity poll when Linus advises her to “know thyself” and dispenses condescending counseling from her five-cent psychiatry booth (“The Doctor Is Real In,” says the sign). Cindy Orthal is a strangely pathetic odd girl out as the not-too-bright tomboy Peppermint Patty; in one weirdly timely skit, she dutifully drones the Pledge of Allegiance, then throws in an “Amen” for good measure. Billy Carter is an athletic, almost dashing Snoopy, bounding about (and up the walls of) the theater as he daydreams of being a World War I flying ace or celebrates suppertime in a rather gross burlesque-show routine. James Thoresen is enjoyable as Schroeder, the tortured poet with the romantic imagination and a Byronic allure for lusty Lucy (Thoresen’s very long “aughh” as he runs away from his would-be groupie comes remarkably close to capturing the absurd feel of the comic strip). Only Steve Heller’s Linus is off the mark; as the calm, superrational, Socrates-quoting intellectual who’s a basket case without his blanket, Heller is too much like Sadler’s frayed Charlie; he shows us Linus’s terrors even when they shouldn’t be showing. It’s a minor flaw in an otherwise on-target, tough-minded little show.

Oh, yes. The kids in the audience liked it too.