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On Theater: 'Doctor' eerily funny

(c) Daily Pilot

April 22, 2010

By Tom Titus

Jamison Jones in Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's "Doctor Cerberus," at South Coast Repertory until May 2, 2010. Photo by Henry DiRocco/SCR.
Common wisdom in the theater holds that you can have success with a serious, thought-provoking drama or with a flamboyant, tech-happy farce. But, as far as the genres are concerned, the twain will never meet.

Until now, that is. South Coast Repertory has effected a glorious introduction with its world premiere production of Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa's "Doctor Cerberus," a play that explores both the viscerally involving and the goofily outrageous with equal acumen. Devotees of both absorbing drama and vintage monster movies will find a comfortable home at SCR's Julianne Argyros Stage.

Awaiting the raising of the curtain, audiences may expect something akin to "The Rocky Horror Picture Show" after absorbing Steven Cahill's Halloween-flavored sound design. But the superb cast, under the imaginative direction of Bart DeLorenzo, has something quite different in mind.

The play focuses on a 15-year-old boy who's experiencing conflicts both with his parents and his confusing sexuality — he's attracted not to TV's Elvira (this is the 1980s) but to his older brother's macho buddy. Most of all, he's in thrall to the demonic Doctor Cerberus, the host of a late-night revival of old-time monster movies on a local Maryland channel.

Aguirre-Sacasa, an unabashed fan of the cinematic horror genre, lets his fertile imagination run wild, abetted by DeLorenzo's affinity for shock and awe. This aspect, however, is merely half the story, the other half focusing on the central character's coming of age in an emotionally hostile environment.

Brett Ryback enacts the young protagonist with boyish energy and affectation, plunging full-throttle into his dream despite opposition from his more conservative parents and, initially, his jock of a Redskins-worshiping brother. The only drawback here — and it's partially justified near the play's end — is that his physical appearance is nowhere near the overweight character he's portrayed to be and which earns him the nickname "Biscuit."

The title role is brilliantly delivered by Jamison Jones, who not only sinks his fangs into Doctor Cerberus, but brings several other characters (English teacher, the brother's buddy) into the picture. It's the TV horror host, however — both on stage and in filmed projections — that propel Jones over the top.

An extraordinary performance is rendered by Candy Buckley as Ryback's initially detestable mother, a smothering, liquor-soaked virago masked in maternal concern who only late in the play unveils her inner humanity. Buckley picks her way through a virtual minefield of potential disruption to secure this memorable character.

Steven Culp is rock-solid as her husband, who attempts to ground his son in reality bolstered with affection. Jarrett Sleeper is quite effective as the older brother, who turns from taunting Ryback's character as a teenager, to supporting him against his parents upon his own maturity.

Technically, the production is outstanding, thanks to the arresting set design by Keith Mitchell, strongly supported by Rand Ryan's lighting, Cahill's eerie sound effects and Christopher Ash's projections and video design.

Seldom has a world premiere, even in the capable hands of South Coast Repertory, which commissioned it, been this far advanced, both dramatically and technically. "Doctor Cerberus" should have a limitless prognosis.

If You Go

What: "Doctor Cerberus"

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

When: 7:45 p.m. Tuesdays through Fridays, 2 p.m. and 7:45 p.m. Saturdays and Sundays through May 2

Cost: $28 to $65

Call: (714) 708-5555

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