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Theater Review: 'Doctor Cerberus' Explores the (Funny) Horrors of Teen Life

(c) BroadwayWorld

April 27, 2010



By Michael L. Quintos

Photos of the cast of South Coast Repertory's DOCTOR CERBERUS by Henry DiRocco/SCR.
Jamison Jones and Brett Ryback.
Everyone has both favorite and not-so-favorite memories from their childhoods that, like it or not, shape who they eventually become as adults. Most survive and grow up with no lingering negative effects, but some may be a bit damaged by it (and may even require therapy). Others glean from their haunting experiences as learning tools to drive them towards fuller, richer lives. In South Coast Repertory's truly excellent World Premiere play DOCTOR CERBERUS (with performances continuing through May 2), playwright Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa takes us back to the mid-1980's to witness the witty coming-of-age tale of one young awkward teen who is just a tad smarter than his years will allow. This, like in all misfits, causes him to be quite anguished by the very nature of his uniqueness in the world. Factor in a standard-issue dysfunctional family that can't quite understand him—plus a society that deems someone like him to be as fringe as it can get—and you have the makings of a winning narrative that has plenty of laughs, pathos and enough poignant moments that has us rooting for our hero to make it through to the end unscathed. Growing up different is scary. More broadly, life itself is scary.

Universally appealing and thoroughly identifiable, DOCTOR CERBERUS introduces us to 13-year-old Franklin Robertson (played with snarky charm by Brett Ryback) who lives with his conventionally eccentric family in the suburbs of the nation's capital during the early Reagan-led years. Young Mr. Robertson (as does all the characters) directly speaks his mind to the audience—a device that allows us some hilarious asides and a point-of-view we alone are privy to that contrasts with the actions on stage. Franklin is what many may consider schoolyard fodder: he's a smart, glasses-wearing, P.E.-averse, slightly overweight nerd, with a penchant for writing fantastical stories and spending a lot of alone time in the family's basement, enchanted by his obsession with horror movies.

Every Saturday night, Franklin looks forward to sinking into the cushions of the couch to watch a show called "Nightmare Theater," hosted by his idol, Dr. Cerberus (played by Jamison Jones, who also morphs into various other periphery characters). A campy hybrid of Vincent Price, Elvira and the Count from "Sesame Street," the ghoulish, cape-wearing Doctor—who apparently holds a "PhD in fear"—introduces these mostly B-movie gems to the delight of Franklin, who hopes to one day meet his hero and be his trusty sidekick. After all, the best heroes often have one, don't they?

Photo of the cast of South Coast Repertory's DOCTOR CERBERUS by Henry DiRocco/SCR.
Bottom: Candy Buckley, Steven Culp, and Jarrett Sleeper.
Once he turns off the TV set, though, he finds that his own real life is its own horror movie, with less blood and gore, of course. High school—and, really, life in general—sucks (no pun intended), where his teachers feel he's intelligent but unfocused (and, perhaps, slightly disturbed because of these horror stories he writes), and where his older brother Rodney (Jarrett Sleeper, channelling every superb 80's cinematic teen jock) torments him daily with unflattering, often scarring nicknames. And—surprise!—his parents don't get him either. Both his nagging mother (scene-stealing Candy Buckley, a part so perfectly written) and stubborn but well-meaning father (an engaging, steadfast Steven Culp) insist on shattering all of Franklin's hopes and dreams... for his benefit, naturally. They may all be normal-looking, but for Franklin—and the audience—there are otherworldly creatures bubbling under his family's seemingly human shells. Oh, the horror! They're pod people!

Franklin escapes the monsters of his real life and retreats, as always, to both horror films and, in turn, his art: his writing. Aside from Dr. Cerberus, he gets a further boost of creative assistance upon the arrival of his beloved Uncle Jack (again, played by Jones), his mother's brother who is, coincidentally, a scribe in Hollywood. Staying in the Robertson home to recover from a mysterious surgery, Uncle Jack becomes a trusted ally for Franklin in battling the demons of his life, and helps him nurture his voice as a writer. He even motivates the young man to shed some of his extra weight. For a while, we see Franklin light up not only because he's found a hero to help and encourage him slay his opposing enemies, he's also found someone who supports his talents... talents that everyone else is so quick to put down. As soon as Uncle Jack leaves (it's the early 1980's, so it's not hard to deduce what mysterious illness he suffers from), Franklin is once again left to fend for himself. In a touching turn of events, Franklin's father attempts to connect closer to his son, only to be reminded once again that pursuing dreams are reserved for those who can afford to take the risks. Unfortunately, everyone in Franklin's family sees him as nothing but a fragile little kid.

Nostalgia for the decade of excess plays a huge part in the play, and this trip down Franklin's memory lane, marked with pop culture sign-posts, also help us discover what shapes this young man's future. One particular vignette has the family tuning in to watch the all-important network Movie-of-the-Week, "The Day After," which aired on ABC in 1983 to record ratings (at the time). The movie depicts the apocalyptic effects of nuclear war on U.S. soil. For one evening, gathered together in front of the television, they are utterly riveted and scared to death by the very real possibility of weapons of mass destruction flattening their very lives. The family pauses its bickering long enough to realize the bigger dangers—the more frightening, very real horrors—that exist outside their bubble.

Although we may not have all been awkward, nerdy teens in our past, Franklin's plights—aided tremendously by Ryback's lovable performance—are eerily identifiable (especially for this reviewer who admittedly share many of the same school taunts, gym fears and solitary TV viewing habits). The audience's ease of connection with Franklin helps us laugh at his circumstances, but empathize with his woes at the same time. Franklin's storytelling voice itself has an air of nostalgic reverence, suggesting that despite what we are observing of Franklin's past, we are comforted by knowing that he was able to transcend what we're seeing play out here. We know he comes out a winner on the other side, and is able to look back with humor instead of resentment. Besides, what teenager hasn't felt misunderstood by adults or feel persecuted by peers? In Franklin's case, taking on the identity of the outcast seems to be the true test of a creative mind. To be an outcast means accepting who you are and going against the grain to find your own path... even in defiance of others. In doing so, the hero (you) slays the villain (them) every time.

Aguirre-Sacasa's play manages to find a lot of genuine humor in Franklin's slightly unfortunate set of circumstances. Dr. Cerberus—like the play that bears his name—serves as a bridge between fear and laughter... Frightening monsters are less scary when diluted through a funnel of amusement. As frightening as these horror films may be... don't they go down your throat easier when served with a dash of kitschy humor? Franklin chooses to do the same with his own life, even if he's only laughing alone on the inside (but, in effect, we as an audience laugh with him). Even a non-chalantly tossed identity trait (which will not be revealed as a spoiler in this review) is treated with good-natured comedy. However, this part of Franklin's identity could have used further exploration, especially juxtaposed against his touching relationship with his Uncle and the very notion of Franklin's persona as an outcast.

Director Bart DeLorenzo stages each vignette as stand-alone scenes that straddle cringe-worthy situations (i.e., stripping to your tighty-whiteys for gym weigh-ins) with levity and even a sprinkling of seriousness, that come together as a satisfying narrative whole. This enables the audience to root wholeheartedly for Franklin to find happiness and success. The deeper themes of loneliness and complacency do curdle on the surface long enough to make an impact; but ultimately, these take a back seat to good, witty dialogue that's more likely to stick with you long after the end of the performance.

What began a year ago as a staged reading for South Coast Repertory's 2009 Pacific Playwrights Festival, this fully-realized production of DOCTOR CERBERUS is enhanced by a thoroughly captivating ensemble, led by Ryback's winning main character. Buckley makes the most of all of her scenes as Franklin's "super expressive" mother with all the gusto of a seasoned stage vet. The men that round out the cast each give their characters an air of authenticity, especially Jones who is tasked with multiple, very distinctive roles. One gripe, though: at the start of the play, visually, Ryback, even with the actor's heavy-set padding, is just not "husky" enough as the play portends him to be. But after a few minutes pass, his performance is so believable that he morphs into the geeky, chunky Franklin we all picture him to be. In addition, Keith Mitchell's wonderfully era-appropriate sets are quite well done, including the funhouse spookiness of Dr. Cerberus' TV studio.

No one has any control over what family you are biologically born into, and if your family happens to personify every horror movie imaginable, then it's your own heroic actions that will eventually save the day. Unlike the spilled guts and blood splatters of a horror movie, there's no real danger in life except for the ones you perpetuate for yourself. Some may see being different as a frightening curse. But ultimately, different can mean extraordinary. Remember, folks, the geek shall eventually inherit the earth. Scared yet?

Grade: A
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Tickets to see DOCTOR CERBERUS, with performances continuing through May 2, are priced between $20-$65 and can be purchased online at www.scr.org, by phone at (714) 708-5555 or by visiting the box office at 655 Town Center Drive in Costa Mesa. Discounts are available for full-time students, patrons 25 years of age and under, educators, seniors and groups of 10 or more. There will be also be an ASL interpreted performance for the deaf community on Saturday, May 1, at 2:00pm.

For more information, visit their website at www.scr.org.

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