Absolutely Filthy is good, clean, dirty fun. The characters talk a blue streak. And it takes the term “comic strip” literally, with funny full frontal nudity. Ultimately though, the show has a sweet take on tolerance that wouldn’t be out of place in a Peanuts cartoon. That’s no accident. Our hero is Pigpen (Brendan Hunt, also the playwright), a grown up version of the Charles Schulz character whose self-describing final words in the strip provide the play’s title.
Homeless, 30, and off his meds, Pigpen’s dunning for dollars outside a church where he keeps running into members of the old gang. This opening section leans heavily on “where are they now” for its humor and interest. Schroeder (Curt Bonnem) has become a mainstream sell-out. Lucy (Anna Douglas) is a hardball TV interviewer of sports celebs. While all the trajectories make sense, it’s the little twists that satisfy. Marcie (Jaime Andrews) has ditched the glasses, gone temporarily blind, and become an oracular surgeon. Linus (Robbie Winston) is a war vet suffering from PTSD. He rubs his suit’s pocket square for security.
They’re all gathering at the church for Charlie Brown’s funeral. That’s right, Charlie (Scott Golden), who’d opened his own psychology shingle with a focus treating children, has died of encephalitis. Maybe it’s Lucy’s fault, from all those times she pulled the football away and he landed on his head. There’s very little good grief as the gang tosses a lot of blame around.
They haven’t even invited Pigpen to the service because his current state makes most of them uncomfortable. This is where Hunt first proves his ambitions extend beyond parody. When Schroeder and Lucy convince a church toady to shoo Pigpen from the church, he responds, “Which bible verse is that again, the one where Jesus decides he’s flat-out tired of poor people?”
Hunt sides with the outsiders. He shows little inclination to get beneath the surface selfishness of winners Lucy, Schroeder, or famous fashion designer Patty (Rachel Germaine), who sports a fake French accent. Hunt gives some shading to Franklin (KJ Middlebrooks), whom Schroeder refers to as “that black guy whose name I can never remember,” sweet Charlie (seen in flashback) and Sally Brown (Shannon Nelson), and the ever-vulnerable Linus. The ensemble cast does solid work but Hunt’s Pigpen is the only one who speaks with a distinctive voice. Fortunately, he talks a lot.
Our hero takes decisive action by crashing the service. Calamity ensues, brightened by a special guest appearance from Jesus (Amir Levi). Pigpen blames his parents for giving him a nickname that sent him down his dark and dirty road. The messiah tops him with “It’s hard, I know. My dad let me die… I don’t want to sound like a martyr. Here’s what you got to do, Pigpen. Get over it and get on with it.”
Pigpen’s effort to do just that dominates the second act. Hunt’s attuned to the ways friends can help us either grow up or become cartoons of our old selves. Schroeder puts it best in a song: “Someday / When I look back / At everything that I ever did / I’m gonna feel like / I spent my whole life / Frozen in time as an eight year old kid /… I don’t like what I see / ‘cause I’m a parody.” The song’s cleverness is compounded by its meta-theatricality, since it doubles as a defense against any charge of copyright infringement.
Hunt’s inventiveness abounds. He’s solved the biggest challenge in presenting Pigpen: what to do about his ever-present dust cloud. Hunt impressively keeps a hula hoop gyrating around his hips for most of the show. Director Jeremy Aldridge creates entertaining bits of business for the times Pigpen sits and, in a pivotal moment of personal growth, showers. Set designer Stephanie Kerley Schwartz and prop designer Emily Donn deserve a share of the credit for moments like these which pop with giddy abandon.
Overall though, the staging and play would benefit from a sharper focus. The piece doesn’t have to shamble as much as Pigpen’s addlepated thought process. A running time of two hours and 15 minutes is a bit much. And so is a 15-member cast. Surrounding Hunt with a versatile ensemble playing multiple parts might set the world around him spinning with even more galvanizing force than his hula hoop.
In Hunt’s estimation, Charlie Brown was the best kind of friend to Pigpen, giving him a wide berth to be himself. With its twisted humor and straightforward tenderness, Absolutely Filthy deserves the same kind of support. Yes, it kills off CB, but this unauthorized parody honors its pedigree. In the end Hunt makes sure the blockhead gets a valentine. The playwright/actor/hula-hooper deserves a quiver-full in return.
Absolutely Filthy runs through March 10 at Sacred Fools, 660 N. Heliotrope Dr., Los Angeles, CA 90004.