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New play in O.C. inspired by TV horror show host

Story Highlights: 'Doctor Cerberus' uses schlocky scares to look at troubled family dynamics.

(c) The Orange County Register

April 9, 2010



By Paul Hodgins

From left, Steven Culp, Brett Ryback, Jerrett Sleeper and Candy Buckley rehearse "Doctor Cerberus," which is set in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. in the mid-1980s. A 13-year-old Franklin Robertson, played by Ryback, would rather write stories than go on dates. It is directed by Bart DeLorenzo and runs at the South Coast Repertory April 11 to May 2.
Every playwright finds a way to pay the bills and subsidize his passion for theater.

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa took a more unusual path than most – he is perhaps better known for his work on comic book stories such as the Fantastic Four than he is for his TV work (he's a principal screenwriter for HBO's "Big Love") and play scripts, which include "Based on a Totally True Story," "Bloody Mary," "Rough Magic," "Dark Matters," "Good Boys and True," "The Mystery Plays" and "Say You Love Satan."

Born and raised in the Washington D.C. area to Nicaraguan immigrant parents, Aguirre-Sacasa has based his latest play, "Doctor Cerberus," partly on his childhood experiences.

We caught up with Aguirre-Sacasa recently as he readied his script for a world-premiere production at South Coast Repertory, where it opens later this month. "Doctor Cerberus" is an SCR commission and was presented there in a reading at last year's Pacific Playwrights Festival.

The Orange County Register: How autobiographical is "Dr. Cerberus"?

Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa: It's definitely autobiographical. There are incidents from my life that correlate with those in the play. It's more emotionally true to my life than true in terms of specific events. How I came to the play is that since I was a kid I've been obsessed with the local TV horror hosts. I read a couple of books about the phenomenon. Every town had one, it seems.

Register: So your initial inspiration was to write a play about such a character.

Aguirre-Sacasa: I thought, "I want to write a play about one of these characters." I sort of imagined a play about one of these guys who retired and hadn't wanted to be a horror host but realized his legacy was this thing that he didn't want in the first place. I started writing a play about this guy who had been a fan of his local horror host finding him in a retirement home. He sought him out to work on a book about this life. The play was essentially these conversations between the young guy and the old guy. Why I thought this would be dramatic was beyond me. I wrote about 40 pages of this play. After a while it either clicks in or it doesn't. This one wasn't clicking in.

Register: So what happened next?

Aguirre-Sacasa: I was sitting in my office in and it was literally like a lighting bolt: I realized that the play isn't about the guy who was the horror host, it's about out the guy who was obsessed with him. It's about this kid and his family. And this kid loves horror movies. He sees everything around him through the filter of a horror movie. Once that clicked in, the play came together very quickly.

Register: What are the themes in "Doctor Cerberus"?

Aguirre-Sacasa: It's partly about the terrible kinds of emotional misunderstandings that exist between parents and their kids, and what happens when one kid decides to be an artist. It was also a little bit of a coming of age and a coming out story.

Register: The kid in the play, Franklin, is a comic book fan. I assume that you were, too, at that age.

Aguirre-Sacasa: Franklin does read comic books, and truthfully for me though I write comic books now and I was a comic book fan growing up, it wasn't like I grew up dreaming to be a comic book writer. Definitely the kinds of comic books that I liked were scary ones, which fed into my work and stuff. But it wasn't the end all and be all.

Register: I've read that you're a big fan of horror fiction. Did that start in childhood too?

Aguirre-Sacasa: Definitely. When I was a kid my mom was also a huge horror fan and a crime story fan. She would buy these books that I read after she did. And Stephen King was my favorite writer.

Register: Do you have any theories about why people are attracted to horror?

Aguirre-Sacasa: I used to be a little bit of a scholar about horror theory. I never quite landed on a reason why. It's similar to the theory of why people like comic books. Gay men like mutants and the X Men because they're ostracized. I've always liked a good scary story, and my tastes have definitely evolved. When I was young I liked "Friday the 13th." Now I don't like those movies. Movies I saw as a kid that were boring, like "Rosemary's Baby," I didn't understand what I was seeing. Now I love them. There's definitely been an evolution in terms of my taste and level of sophistication.

Horror movies have always been a strange barometer for whatever is happening culturally. To understand a culture the best thing to do is discover what scares people.

I should probably take this moment to say that this play is definitely a comedy! It's got dramatic elements and it does go to some dark places, but it is funny first and foremost.

Register: What kind of horror host is Doctor Cerberus?

Aguirre-Sacasa: I compiled a list of 200 different horror hosts. The ones I kept being drawn to were more mythological, or seemed to tap into something deep. Like the mythological dogs he's named after, Doctor Cerberus is a gatekeeper. He guards a sort of passageway for Franklin. The character is very low-brow but sees himself as a sophisticate.

Register: What kind of family and home life does Franklin have?

Aguirre-Sacasa: All of the family members are wrestling against what they are and what they want to be. Every family at one point or other hits a critical mass for reasons both external and internal. I grew up under sort of two very dark shadows: AIDS, which was not yet totally figured out, and the shadow of nuclear war.

Register: How has your work on "Big Love" influenced your playwriting?

Aguirre-Sacasa: I'm starting my third year on "Big Love ." In terms of writing, it has taught me about being muscular in my own playwriting. Action is better than dialogue. Event is absolutely paramount. Stuff has to happen in order for you to be engaged. My plays have more action now – that's for sure!

Contact the writer: 714-796-7979 or phodgins@ocregister.com


'Doctor Cerberus'

Where: Argyros Stage, South Coast Repertory, 655 Town Center Drive, Costa Mesa

When: Previews April 11-15, regular performances April 16-May 2. 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays-Fridays, 2 and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays

How much: Previews $20-$55, regular performances $28-$65

Tickets: 714-708-5555

Online: www.scr.org



More pictures that were published in the article:
From left, Steven Culp, Brett Ryback, Jerrett Sleeper and Candy Buckley rehearse "Doctor Cerberus," which is set in the suburbs of Washington, D.C. in the mid-1980s. A 13-year-old Franklin Robertson, played by Ryback, would rather write stories than go on dates. It is directed by Bart DeLorenzo and runs at the South Coast Repertory April 11 to May 2.
Photo by Cindy Yamanaka / The Orange County Register

Steven Culp, left, and Brett Ryback rehearse "Doctor Cerberus" at South Coast Repertory. Photo by Cindy Yamanaka / The Orange County Register

From left, Steven Culp, Brett Ryback, Jerrett Sleeper and Candy Buckley rehearse "Doctor Cerberus," which is part comedy and part terror.
Photo by Cindy Yamanaka / The Orange County Register

From left, Candy Buckley and Steven Culp portray parents of Jerrett Sleeper and Brett Ryback's characters in "Doctor Cerberus."
Photo by Cindy Yamanaka / The Orange County Register

No, it's not a dead performance during rehearsal of "Doctor Cerberus" at South Coast Repertory. This skeleton was cut from a scene and sits it out during the play, which is a coming of age comedy laced with plenty of schlocky horror.
Photo by Cindy Yamanaka / The Orange County Register

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