The wildly fanatical, abundantly fantastical and absolutely insane is standard fare at Sacred Fools Theatre especially for exuberant intellectuals, counter-culture enthusiasts and the occasional libertine (and those are the regular audiences! – I count myself in…). Which is why, based on its physicality alone, Absolutely Filthy may go down in infamy as the most un-sacred rendition of a Peanuts assemblage that ever made it to the stage.
The premiere of one of Sacred Fools more important parodies to date did everything to generally astound audiences, beginning with lead actor Brendan Hunt’s almost two hours, non-stop hula hooping feat, to unabashed nudity, to a spirit visit from Snoopy in the Sky (sans diamonds), and curious advice from – ah – Jesus – as we observe a reluctant, middle-aged and miserable Peanuts reunion.
Although they are not specifically named in the program (for legal reasons), Charles Shultz’s characters come recognizably through. Lucy, Linus, Charlie, Sally, Schroeder, Peppermint Patty, Marcie, Franklin, Pig Pen and of course Snoopy. Essentially none of their personalities and/or behaviors have changed including that of Charlie Brown’s, whose untimely death from encephalitis (a severe swelling of the brain), as we quickly discover, has brought them all together.
In Absolutely Filthy we are given a modern day view of what’s become of a group of estranged friends encountering one by one, a dirty, crazed, homeless man outside the church where the event is taking place, who at a second glance, turns out to be their childhood buddy, Pig Pen, or The Mess, as he is referred to in this production.
It is shocking and disturbing for them for several reasons. One: Each has reached a mecca level of success in their respective careers, which of course becomes entirely embarrassing upon recognizing a once close companion, that none of them would like to admit knowing at this moment. This incurs a certain amount of guilt about deliberately attempting to ignore him. Two: The Mess was Sally’s love of her life, and he unforgivably botched it, having sex with Patty (while they were all at college together) and then abandoning a shattered Sallie (out of guilt) without explanation. And three: None of the friends had even made an attempt at contacting and definitely not inviting The Mess in the first place. He is entirely and sadly unaware that his best friend, Charlie, is even dead.
Couched in characters that we find funny and quirky is a sad, sweet, brilliant irony about people – their disappointments, detachments, living and feeling alone in the world, love and the loss of it, loyalty, joy and what it means to be a true friend. Here is where Absolutely Filthy gets absolutely deep.
This group of respective childhood playmates who have tried very hard to distance themselves from each other, i.e, the past, find themselves inevitably, in the same small room attempting to honor a person they’ve called a friend in name, but never greatly acknowledged as one until this moment. What proceeds is an awkward undertaking for exculpation, by all.
Charlie Brown has struggled all of his life with his own perceived inadequacies. It’s the comedy we remember him by, “Oh, I’m a failure.” And yet he himself has never swayed in his loyalty and love for his buddies or the so many others he’s tried to help apparently as a [adult] therapist. No matter what, Charlie always found good in everything and everyone. His great success, was his enormous capacity for love and also being the best, most ardent friend any person could ever have. Yeah, it’s a tear-jerker.
This one revelation turns out to be the salvation for them all, especially for The Mess, who in this moment finally is able to step up and do one thing totally right in his life.
Absolutely Filthy is psychotically written, but keenly designed. It is an intricate, enormously inspired, hilarious display of humanity at its worst and best. We are all the better for experiencing it. Definitely awesome performances by the entire ensemble!
That all being said, this, I thought was a moment for veering from a regular review and to speak with both lead actor Brendan Hunt and director Jeremy Aldridge, for a more personal take on this outlandish and poignant production, which is also Ovation Award Recommended. They were nice enough to get on the telephone — Jeremy from his car on his way out of the theater from rehearsal. That’s dedication! lol
And the idea just started developing?
Brendan: Two Burns later at Burn of 2011 – one day my friends were all out dancing and we were way out in the desert with tons of room. There was a woman there I had a fling with the year before which didn’t pan out. So I was keeping my distance. I had space. But I was isolating from the group. Dust was kicking up everywhere – suddenly Pig Pen as a Burner clicked and the structure of the show came together.
[giggle] How did you learn how to hula hoop like that?
Brendan: It was what could I do to be theatrical, present and kinetic. The trick of it is to not making a big deal of it.
This seemed so much deeper than just a Peanuts reunion. Yes?
Brendan: There’s an Elvis Costello quote, “Read this quiet.” It’s not so much about describing a feeling but taking that and transforming it into a piece of work. In Alison he’s moved on from her but he’s still churning out songs. I don’t’ really feel abandoned and left behind but I can, [well] you can feel kind of isolated and on your own, although I don’t necessarily feel that way.
Explain the internal rages that The Mess takes when he goes inside of himself.
Brendan: It’s about finding the truth, trying to connect to stuff; and things like Burning Man and Goth. Be less bummed out.
What do you really love about doing this piece?
Brendan: This is my first fully produced piece. By far it’s the most involved thing I’ve completed. I’ve been really fortunate too. Right from the beginning the cast was up for it! I didn’t know all of the people in the show previously. But it’s been spontaneous and exciting. Even on opening night we wrote new lines. It’s been really gratifying.
Jeremy: [Yeah Brendan is definitely a quiet guy…] We were working on Serial Killers. The process for that is so intense. It’s a space [so short and small] where you don’t get to over-think, but you do get to set a basic template. You have an 80% idea how scenes are going to play, find out what works, doesn’t work, and how things conceptually work on different sets and see what supports the piece. Really you start there, especially character and text-wise. You have a head start, then delve into character pace. After [the experience of] Serial Killers, telling a story over two hours – that feels like a luxury. We had 8 weeks over the holidays to really think about scenes and design to support the story and invest. What we came up with is rich and well-developed.
This is your first time working with Brendan?
Jeremy: No we’ve worked on a couple of other productions: Savin Up for Saturday Night Honky Tonk Musical won the Ovation Award for that performance – Male lead in a musical. Then I produced Crumble [Gia: “Hey I reviewed you guys for that!”] and worked with Jeremy Aluma. Brendan and I would be working under the deck, under the lights and kicking around this idea of doing a Serial Killer Pig Pen at 30. You have five different 10 minute pieces for that week. The audience votes on which 3 will continue. You have to write rehearse and put up the next episode and etc. Ed Goodman ran 13 weeks at Serial Killers. Really the development of Absolutely Filthy happened inside of the program.
What part of the process did you love about this particular show?
Jeremy: Brendan let’s the performance and show do most of the talking. What’s “nice” for me that Brendan is a genius. [laughs] He’s done an amazing job. I really enjoyed helping him with surrounding the text with the set, lights music that supports the show. It really lends it real theatricality. Snoopy is a combination of Charlie’s, Red Haired girl and Snoopy, the iconic loves of his life.
It’s quite beautiful tackling the ideas of forgiveness, self-forgiveness and redemption through Charlie Brown dying from encephalitis.
Jeremy: Triumphant! An awful lot in the play that is rich and spiritual comes from a character that is dirty, who hates himself and is plunged to the depths of human existence for a decade. In the end he finds a crack of light and some bit of hope through his friendship with Charlie. It’s totally relatable without being heavy-handed. It’s beautiful and I’m proud of it. Playing with Brendan in Absolutely Filthy been a remarkable project. And it’s kind of the pantheon of stuff that will move out of Fools.
Then I guess we should look for that after this first run!
written by Brendan Hunt
directed by Jeremy Aldridge