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The horrors of growing up Doctor Cerberus'

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Photo by Magnus Stark Penobscot Theatre Company Photo by Magnus Stark Penobscot Theatre Company

Penobscot Theatre production a heartfelt, funny ode to adolescence

BANGOR Growing up can be a difficult process one made even more difficult if a person is a little bit different. But when your development is steered by horror movies and a guide with a PhD in fear, well it's going to be one hell of a journey.

So it is with 'Doctor Cerberus,' the latest production mounted by Penobscot Theatre Company. The play written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa and directed by Bari Newport follows one young man as he struggles with his own uniqueness on his way toward adulthood. The show runs through November 8 at the Bangor Opera House.

We first meet Franklin Robertson (Ben Layman) at the age of 13. He lives just outside of Washington D.C. with his parents mother Lydia (Amy Roeder) and father Lawrence (Dominick Varney) as well as his older brother Rodney (Bradley LaBree). Franklin is a sensitive kid, introverted and overweight; he has difficulty relating to his family or making friends.

His one outlet the one source of constancy in his world is Doctor Cerberus (Mark Chambers), the host of a kitschy local late-night horror movie show (and possessor of the aforementioned PhD in fear). Franklin's love of the macabre is fueled by his weekly visits with the good Doctor; he even regularly writes fan letters.

But closer to home, Franklin is forced to deal with a bullying big brother, a shrill harpy of a mother and a largely ineffectual father. He dreams of being a writer, but there's little in the way of a support system even when the occasionally encouraging figure appears, an uncle or a teacher, they are soon shunted aside by the willful force of his mother.

As he gets older, his relationships grow more complex, both with his family and with himself. He confronts certain truths about himself truths that his family has difficulty fully accepting. And he tries to pursue his dreams, but those dreams are often sabotaged deliberately or otherwise by either those around him or Franklin himself.

Through it all, his devotion to the darkness, his love of scary stories, carries him through. And as he finds ways to accept himself, so too does he find ways of accepting his family. Despite their many flaws, he loves them as they in turn love him.

In short, it is a show that is poignant and crass and heartfelt and funny and so very, very good.

Layman's performance as Franklin is, to put it simply, outstanding. We bear witness as he grows from a scared boy into a man the man that he chooses to be. It is a nuanced and touching performance, one that elicits sympathy and empathy and any '-pathy' you might want. Layman is sweet and scared and unfailingly genuine; it's a phenomenal and foundational performance. He is a gifted performer and this is him at his best.

Meanwhile, Roeder offers up a biting whirlwind of a performance as Franklin's mother. Her unceasing energy and sharp wit turns Lydia into the epitome of the unsupportive mother; at times, she's practically the Socratic ideal of maternal unpleasantness. However, Roeder still manages to imbue her with soul and real humanity. She is not a cartoon. LaBree skates close to that edge as well, but never falls over it. His portrayal of Rodney is archetypal big brother, all casual abuse and meatheadedness, but LaBree somehow manages to show Rodney's very real love for Franklin while still being very much the same d-bag. Varney gives us a portrait of one man's life of quiet desperation. He still manages to breathe life into a man who, despite his best efforts, still resents some of the sacrifices he has made. Chambers is, welleveryone else. He is over-the-top campy and ridiculous as Doctor Cerberus, yet he manages to impart a sense of sweet understatement as Franklin's Uncle Jack. Whether he's a friend or a neighbor or a teacher or a coach, Chambers creates a vivid character; even the briefest of scenes feel fully formed.

On the production side of things, 'Doctor Cerberus' has a distinct and compelling aesthetic. Piles of screens sit on each end of the stage. Two more dangle from above. The juxtaposition of the sparse basement space of the Robertson home and the elaborate setting from which Doctor Cerberus holds court lets us share Franklin's view of the world. Scenic designer Tricia Hobbs has outdone herself. Lighting designer Scout Hough wields light and shadow liberally as well, creating a great ambiance (and a few surprises). Costume designer Kevin Koski captures the era beautifully (two words pink pants). Sound designer Brandie Rita and projection designer Magnus Stark come together and create the cathode-ray tube-driven world of Franklin's inner life though soundtracks and film clips, while Meredith Perry's prop design is excellent as always.

Taking on a show like this one is an interesting challenge for a director. Newport has constructed a tight ensemble, one that allows each actor to build on the strengths of the others. There's an intimacy to this show that might have been lost in a space the size of the Opera House, but Newport and her cast have definitely found a way to fill the room.

'Doctor Cerberus' is a coming of age story, the tale of one young man finding his way toward becoming the adult he is meant to be. But it is also a story of dreams and the consequences of following them or choosing not to follow them. It is sweet and impactful, the sort of story to which anyone who has ever dared to dream can relate. Despite the many nods to the canon of horror stories, it isn't really a scary show although one could certainly argue that there are few things more frightening than growing up.

Last modified on Tuesday, 27 October 2015 19:26

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