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'Doctor Cerberus' at South Coast Repertory

(c) Orange County

April 18, 2010

By Lizzie Bennet

I was once again invited by the lovely and talented folks at South Coast Repertory to see a new work by Yale-educated playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, Doctor Cerberus. It starts off as the typical coming-of-age in the 1980s story that we have all come to know and love (loathe?), but each of the seemingly stock characters show themselves to have the depth, complexity and humanity customary in a modern play.

Upon entering the theater we were greeted with horror movie sound affects (thanks to sound designer Steven Cahill), (purposefully) low-quality gravestone set decorations and a smiling devil in the spotlight to set the mood. As the curtain opened and we were introduced to Doctor Cerberus, the host of late night horror movies, I thought to myself "the creative team had to have a fun time with this one!" Keith Mitchell's set included silly skeletons and glowing green paint, yet also the realism of a 1980s suburban home (see if you can spot the Dukes of Hazzard item amongst the set dressing). I appreciated the use of projections, by Christopher Ash, to convey place as well as allow the audience to witness the television images that feature so prominently in this work. Shigeru Yaji, costume designer, was able to create the TV host's obviously home-made Dracula knock-off ensemble as well as dress the rest of the cast in period-appropriate attire. It is a blessing and a curse that fashion in the 80s is now a punchline in and of itself; look out for the P.E. teacher! Rand Ryan, lighting design, also was able to have fun with black-lights and lightning bolts, and then use light to convey reality of both place and emotion.

Doctor Cerberus centers around Franklin Robertson, a 13-year-old nerd with weight issues, an insensitive jock older brother, and unhappy, over-protective parents. He escapes into horror movies every Saturday night in the basement and dreams of becoming Doctor Cerberus's assistant. As Director Bart DeLorenzo puts it, "He doesn't see the world in a normal way. He sees it as a horror movie. And who is the hero of a horror movie? Is it the one who runs away, or is it the monster?" The pacing of the play kept me engaged throughout, although I found the "dance" scene outside the museum to be a funny but uncharacteristic way to make a potentially uninteresting scene watchable. Franklin escaping into fantasy was inside the parameters of this world, but the entire cast doing so in unison led me to "WTF?" and wonder if Mr. DeLorenzo was desperate or just wanting to have fun. I also wish he could have coaxed just a little bit more out of Candy Buckley, who plays Franklin's mother Lydia. As written by Mr. Aguirre-Sacasa, this role has the potential to bring awards to the women who play it, and I thought that Ms. Buckley was 90% there. I do not say this often, but this is a role that could be played over-the-top to good affect. I see the potential for greatness, yet was still pleased and entertained with the hilarious choices that Ms. Buckley made.

One of the fun parts of going to theater in Southern California is that moment where an actor walks on the stage and you think "hey, isn't that So and So from TV show X?" This frequently occurs in my experience, and last night was no exception. Steven Culp, who plays Franklin's father Lawrence, appeared on stage and I admit I thought "It's Bree's dead husband from Desperate Housewives! Neat!" Upon reading his bio I should not have been surprised: Mr. Culp evenly balances his work between film/television and theater. I thought Mr. Culp gave an admirable performance as a man who radiates bitterness, love and "everything will be fine" at the same time. I cannot decide if the casting was to type or brilliant but either way it worked! (Personal Note: I also amuse myself at intermission by counting the number of folks in Broadway touring companies who have guest starred on Law And Order variations.)

Brett Ryback, who created the role of Franklin at last year's Pacific Playwrights Festival, does an excellent job portraying a child who is not yet comfortable in his own skin and is still discovering his own soul. He never apologizes for Franklin, and I saw a teenager who did not change himself to make his parents or teachers happy because he did not feel that anything was wrong with who he was. So what if he has a gory imagination? So what if he likes to write stories? Ryback respected a character that was rarely given respect elsewhere. One notable exception is that of the character of Uncle Jack, played by Jamison Jones (who also played Dr. Cerberus as well as several others). I was most impressed with the performance of Mr. Jones. He showed subtlety, overtness and all-out ridiculous when each was called for. I am sure this talented actor will continue to have a successful career. The young Jarrett Sleeper, who plays Franklin's torturing brother, deftly showed other sides to a character that could have been merely one-dimensional. He did, however, rely a bit too much on stereotype and I would have enjoyed more showing of range. I give the playwright credit for writing such a humorous role that still has a heart.

Previews: April 11 - 15, 2010
Opening Night: April 16, 2010
Regular Performances: April 17 – May 2, 2010

Recommendation: While this is about a young boy, it is for theatre-goers high school and above. Franklin's family is definitely dysfunctional. They are written with comic genius, but there is a dark side to some of the situations, even the uproariously funny ones. Profanity and sexuality.

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