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"You're a Wholesome Show, Charlie Brown!" GGFCT Takes On The Classic Peanuts Gang

Theatre is for everyone, which means that not all theatre can be for everyone. And that includes me.

I took in one of the opening week performances of the Greater Grand Forks Community Theatre's latest production, You're a Good Man Charlie Brown. For anyone who grew up reading the weekly adventures of the Peanuts gang in the "funny pages" or watching one of the animated Charlie Brown holiday specials, the show treads familiar territory: gloomy adolescent Charlie Brown (Blake Storbakken) navigates the challenges of childhood, a time notoriously free of actual challenges.

Before I talk more about the show, I should probably lay my cards out on the table: this is not the kind of theatre that really moves me. It's cute, it's entertaining, and the cast does a fine job with the material presented, but there's not a lot of layers here. This is a show that's meant to be an uncomplicated safe space in a world of cultural complexity and conflict, a little hit of nostalgia to tug on the heartstrings and remind us of simpler times. It's captures a certain childhood innocence that I'm afraid I'm a little too old and a little too cynical to truly connect with.

Bert V. Royal's 2004 play, Dog Sees God: Confessions of a Teenage Blockhead, is an unauthorized play that imagines the Peanuts gang as angsty and troubled teenagers; the Fire Hall did a late production of the show back when they had a more adult-oriented "after hours" calendar of shows (that is sorely missed). That show has a certain early 2000s sensibility about the excesses of teen life that I found to be a bit much: rampant drug use, 3ways, sexual abuse and bullying, and Lucy is in a psychiatric hospital for setting the little red-haired girl's hair on fire. Snoopy had to be put down after he contracted rabies, killed "a little yellow bird," and almost bit Charlie Brown. It's...a lot.

I bring it up because as much as much as the excesses of that show felt contrived and used more for shock value than to guide us to some larger message or experience, I found You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown to feel similarly contrived but in a way that's meant to be placating to our contemporary anxieties, a spoonful of sugar to whatever thing you might imagine that won't get me sued by Disney. During both shows, there is this sense of, "But life isn't really like that," at least not for most people, and certainly not all the time. Please don't take this the wrong way, but it feels a little like taking the phrase "Make America Great Again," stripping it of all of its political grossness and the trappings of white supremacy (and all of the other -isms the phrase represents in our current cultural moment), and this is what's left over: a toothy grin on a kid's face behind a white picket fence with hopeful enthusiasm taking the place of any real depth or complexity.

Jesus, I swear I didn't hate this show! One of the frustrations I've always had writing about theatre is that I want theatre to challenge me, to move me, to evoke something in me. This show isn't meant to do that, or at least it's not meant to do that for someone with my kind of cynical worldview. And that's a "me" problem, not a problem with this production. If anything in this post feels too harsh, just remember that I'm writing it as someone who has found themself in the middle of the safest of all safe spaces, actively looking for danger. Does that make sense?

This production, music and stage directed by Misti Koop, is a fantastic comfort watch. The actors are clearly having a good time and do a great job of bringing some life to their intentionally uncomplicated characters. Storbakken is appropriately gloomy as Charlie Brown, and any time he might start to get a hopeful glint in his eye, his sister Sally (Silje Kindseth) or classmate Lucy (Amy Driscoll) are there to quite gleefully rain on his parade. Linus (Jamie Travers) and Schroeder (Quinlan Schudrowitz) are both solid, though they are both somewhat limited to being prop characters: Linus with his blanket, and Schroeder with his piano. All of the actors inhabit their characters well, and infuse the material with enthusiasm and sweetness. I wouldn't have minded a little hint of true malice from either Sally or Lucy, but that's just me and my curmudgeonly preferences.

The real standout in the show is Hannah Kosman's Snoopy; she brings a physicality to the role that is genuinely fun to watch and she is able to merge with the tableau being created while also standing out as a character with a separate, interior life that isn't fully accessible to the children. The air battle with the Red Baron was one of my favorite Peanuts moments from childhood, and it was fun to see Kosman's interpretation of the classic moment.

Technically, I felt the show was mostly successful. The costumes by Amy Lyste were perfect; she has a fantastic eye for curating costumes that look and fit great but also, perhaps more importantly, look like they fit in the world of the show. Full disclosure: I am friends with Amy Lyste, but I am also a petty, smart-mouthed theatre snob who sets a high bar for the technical aspects of productions that sometimes get forgotten about or half-assed, and that part of me finds Amy Lyste to be a goddamn treasure. She understands that there is a very important difference between clothing and costumes. It's no wonder she is constantly in demand in the local theatre scene.

The set is also delightfully reminiscent of a Sunday comics page in gorgeous bright colors, adaptable enough to give the actors some variety to work with, without overcrowding the space with unnecessary "stuff." The only thing that seemed a bit off to me were a few choices in the lighting design. It can be far too easy, especially in a mostly volunteer community theatre environment where you may not have someone whose personal passion is technical design, to just throw up a general wash on the stage and call it a day, so I applaud any production that takes some chances when it comes to using lighting. However, taking risks comes with the possibility that they won't all work out the way you had hoped, and that was unfortunately the case here.

The problem I had with the lights is that there were times throughout the show where the light would switch from a general wash to strong wash of a specific color. For example, during the Red Baron scene, there is a strong wash of red across the stage. This can be great for creating a certain effect, and in the case of the Red Baron scene I think it added to the atmosphere. What wasn't as successful was when the lights changed to a dense wash of yellow. I was never really sure what the purpose was for these yellow moments (they weren't as obvious as the times where the red was used), but it just didn't work with the vibrant colors of the set: the floor and lower third of the back wall are a bright green, and the upper two thirds are a bright sky blue, so drenching everything in yellow light just made everything sort of greenish and sickly. It might have helped things if the characters had some individual spots on them to cut some of the color on their faces, but the color saturation was pretty strong and tended to take over the space.

If you want a little sweetness in your life, go see this show. It's the feeling of children's theatre without having to deal with actual child actors. It's fun, there's music and dancing, there's a gorgeous visual tableau created by performers who seem genuinely happy to be there. If you're like me, and like your theatre with a little danger, this is definitely not that, but it is a fun, frothy night out where you can unplug your brain and just relax into the moment. This is comfort entertainment that gets you out of the house instead of just plowing through all six seasons of Schitt's Creek for the umpteenth time. And sometimes, that's good enough.

You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown runs Thursday through Saturday this week, February 22-24, at the Fire Hall Theatre. Tickets are available at or at the door.

Post-script: As I was pulling pictures and doing some research for this post, I saw that Apple TV+ just released a new Peanuts special called Welcome Home, Franklin, all about Franklin, the first black character in Peanuts, and how he came to know the gang. Apparently one of the things they do in the show is reframe a classic scene from the old Thanksgiving Special, where Franklin is shown sitting alone on one side of the table with the rest of the gang all seated on the opposite side. That image has bothered me for a while, and I'm glad they chose to reframe that moment. I had posted a meme about it not too long ago, and someone in the comments claimed that it was arranged like that because Franklin originally wasn't supposed to be included in the special at all, but Charles Schultz fought for it, and they had to add him into a scene that had already been completed. I haven't been able to confirm that version yet, but I'd like to believe that it's true because it's better than the alternative. Either way, I'm glad they decided to take on that moment and reframe it in a new way.

I haven't seen the new special (and likely won't, as I don't have Apple TV+, or any desire to get Apple TV+), but I think it could serve as a model for how future iterations of You're a Good Man, Charlie Brown could include some deeper messages without sacrificing its family friendliness. But that's just me, pushing my Woke Leftist agenda...hail Satan!

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