Wonder and joy

Linus was never Ben Mackel’s favorite member of the Peanuts gang.

“I always liked Snoopy,” he confesses. But on-stage, the 16-year-old exudes the sweet resignation of Lucy’s blanket-dependent, philosophizing little brother splendidly — proving you don’t have to be loyal to your character to understand what’s made Charles M. Schulz’s comic strip such an enduring classic.

Drew Emanuele signed on as a last-minute replacement in Asheville Community Theatre’s latest musical, You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown, but preparing for the role of Snoopy has never been a hardship for this veteran of traveling children’s theater.

“For Snoopy, I’m pretty much myself,” he notes. “You’ve got to keep [an] attitude of wonder and joy. You stay young that way.” In fact, Emanuele’s college acting debut came in a production of You’re a Good Man, Charlie Brown, back in the ’70s.

“A lot of brain cells have died since then,” he jokes, “so it’s kind of neat trying to get back into [the role].” About the world’s most enduring pack of cartoon kids, though, his thoughts remain clear.

“[Peanuts] has survived because of its innocence,” he says, adding, “You can relate to just about every one of these characters.”

Maybe you find secret catharsis in Lucy’s wanton crabbiness (recent UNCA graduate Angelique Roberts is appropriately shrill and displays good comedic timing); feel the anachronistic pain of Schroeder (Mark Jones plays Beethoven’s biggest fan); or wince involuntarily when the luckless Charlie Brown (A.C.T. favorite John Stanier) realizes, yet again, the basic futility of life.

Yes, wonder and innocence notwithstanding, Schulz’s gang always did have their share of neuroses. And then there’s Snoopy, the ebullient beagle whose Zenlike frolicking and unshakable self-love provoke envy almost as easily as adoration.

Like the Peanuts gang, community theater itself involves a wide variety of characters and fans. But this particular production has brought out an even more spectacular assemblage of cast and crew than usual, say Director Lupe Perez and ACT Dublicity Director Andrew Reed — perhaps because of the play’s universal appeal.

“When you get involved with theater, you have to be half crazy, anyway,” notes volunteer Tom Butler with a laugh. “There’s a lot of spirit here. This is a very open bunch. Everybody, whether they know you or not, says ‘Welcome aboard!’ There’s a lot of talent at A.C.T. They just crawl out of the woodwork. Every play we do, we say, ‘Wow! Where did we get that one?'”

Butler, a seasoned actor formerly associated with Philadelphia’s Mainline Players, among other companies, became involved with A.C.T. a year-and-a-half ago, following the death of his wife.

“I was hunting for things to do,” he remembers. “I had been in theater for lots of years, from an acting standpoint. … You never lose the love of it. [Volunteering] was something I could do, rather than sit home in an empty house.”

Helping build A.C.T.’s sets reawakened Butler’s love for the theater, in short order. “I didn’t want to act anymore,” he says. “You get a little older, and you get to the point where you can’t remember where you put your car keys, never mind learning a whole script again. I’d never done set work before, and I’ve just had a ball.”

For You’re A Good Man, Charlie Brown, Snoopy’s doghouse and Lucy’s “Psychiatric Help” booth are recognizable anchors in a simple, jolly set featuring lots of orangey reds and a makeshift sun with rays made of bright-yellow tubing.

“With musicals, you can get away with a more sketchy type set; it makes you use your imagination,” says Butler.

Technical Director Ariel Ashe, a recent UNCA graduate in technical theater, also appreciates the whimsical scenery. “I like the campy, bright colors,” she confides. This is her first paying job using her major, and she has approached her crew-organizing duties with relish.

“In professional theater, it’s just your job, and you go home,” she notes. “Here, [the volunteers] want to do it, because it’s fun. They just enjoy doing it.”

Cody Bender and Daniel Porter have pivotal behind-the-scenes roles in You’re a Good Man, though the two are only 13 and 14, respectively.

“Lupe asked me to help with set-building [and] backstage stuff,” explains Bender. “We help build the set, and then, as soon as the set’s all done, we’re going to be stagehands. It’s pretty fun; it’s different.” says Bender, who’s also helping out with a play at school.

Porter, on the other hand, is already familiar with community theater, having helped his mother with her mime and movement-theater troupe, Silent Partners.

“I tech for my mom,” he says offhandedly. “We thought we would be doing the lights and music and sound and all, but until then, we’re going to build all this stuff.” Like Bender, he enjoys working behind the scenes, but doubts he will ever pursue the business professionally.

“It’s all fun and games, until someone starts getting paid,” he quips.

In contrast, youngest cast member Tanesha Eugenia Shaw, a spunky delight as Sally, openly forecasts her star-studded future.

“I like singing,” says the 11-year-old. “I want to be a millionaire and live in a big house and be in movies over and over again.”

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