Arts & Entertainment:

Actors Ensemble Lovingly Revives the ‘Peanuts’ Gang

By Ken Bullock, Special to the Planet
Thursday July 23, 2009
Summertime ... Charlie Brown stolidly leading his baseball team down to defeat, hit after hit flying high over his head as pitcher, while the players gossip about him in the outfield. Soon it’ll be fall—with Lucy yanking away the football she’s suckered the ever-gullible Charlie Brown into trying to kick off.

Peanuts is—or was, before Hallmark made it a kind of instant nostalgia—one of the perennials of postwar American life. You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown captures the élan of the strip’s middle period, extending it out past the limit of a few panels to the stage, a miniature milieu musical in a series of vignettes around Charlie Brown and his entourage—menagerie, if you count Snoopy—of friends, neighbors, schoolmates.

Actors Ensemble of Berkeley just opened You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, “a revival of a revival” (the 1999 Broadway revival added two new songs to the 1967 original), from a well-mounted production originally at the Masquers Playhouse. A few of the original players are in this one, too.

Director Gregg Klein notes that the show is often regarded and performed as a kids’ show, with younger actors or by high school drama departments. He’s right that there’s much more to it—and much more than gets extracted by the feel-good family versions community theater can be rife with.

Part of the charm of Peanuts, as it grew up, was its eccentric cast, all little kids, but kids with poise and attitude. As kids ourselves at the time, we certainly got it, and were tickled that our Peanuts contemporaries, as we thought of them, got away with playing grown-up with such a vengeance.

Klein’s big kids pull it off, too. Charlie Brown, the Existential Everyman of suburbia (tempting to call him the Kid Without Qualities), played engagingly by Kyle Johnson, agonizes over his wishy-washiness (a real Peanuts phrase I don’t remember uttered once in the play), finally resorting to Lucy’s “Psychiatric Help,” suspiciously looking like a refurbished lemonade stand, where that bellicose, self-proclaimed little queen (portrayed with admirable hauteur by Michelle Pond)—truly a juvenile White Queen out of Alice—dispenses curbside advice.

Charlie Brown spills out his anxieties. Lucy very professionally reads him out and tells him how to join the crowd and achieve his dreams. Charlie Brown smiles, referring to their session as proof of deep friendship. Lucy sticks out her hand and says crisply, “That will be five cents.”

Johnson and Pond unite with the rest—Ted V. Bigornia as thumbsucking, intellectual Linus (with a security blanket); Shay Oglesby-Smith as sassy little sister Sally; Davern Wright as dour artist-type Schoeder, who Lucy the philistine fussbudget (another Peanuts word I don’t remember hearing) is hooked on; and David Irving as Snoopy, that high-soaring beagle imagining himself a World War I ace—making a tight little ensemble, singing the dozen or so songs, played by an octet (half doubling on kazoo) under the direction of Patricia King, dancing to Kris Bell’s choreography, in Dianne Beaulieu-Arms’ costumes on David Bradley’s clever, attractive set, lit by Renee Echavez and Deborah Sandman, with sound by Marti Baer and Joe Ponder. Roger Schrag produced the show for AE.

You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown is one of those adaptations that works, like The Fantasticks; if it’s done with skill and understanding. It has a funny spin to it, avoiding being coy, false naive.

The kids play grown-up with rare polish. Charlie Brown, most humane of all, just wants to be a person, be himself. And Snoopy knows that as the dog, he’s really the guest at the supper dish, and can be anything he wants.

The cast picks up on it and plays it that way, giving the third dimension to a squiggly-line comic strip everybody in America read.


Presented by Actors Ensemble of Berkeley at 8 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Aug. 13 at Live Oak theater, 1301 Shattuck Ave. $12-$15. 649-5999.