For people of a certain age, late night horror hosts were fun, fearsome faces on their television screens once a week. And for the protagonist of “Doctor Cerberus,” a contemporary play being produced by the Penobscot Theatre Company that opens Oct. 22, those midnight movies introduced by those horror hosts were a lifeline.
Franklin Robertson, the main character of “Cerberus,” portrayed by longtime PTC actor Ben Layman, is a 13-year-old misfit, with a bullying older brother and distant parents. Doctor Cerberus, the horror host brought to campy, macabre life by Mark Chambers, last seen in 2014’s “The Mystery of Irma Vep,” helps Franklin to grow up, change and be the person he wants to be.
“It’s a play about dysfunctional families… and it’s a play about following your dreams,” said director Bari Newport. “And it’s a play for anybody that loves horror movies or comic books or Stephen King or anything else like that.”
Set in the early 1980s, and with costumes designed by Kevin Koski and a set by Tricia Hobbs to suit the era, “Doctor Cerberus” blends together pop culture and pathos into a satisfying, touching whole. Written by Roberto Aguirre-Sacasa, known for his work writing for Marvel Comics, for the TV shows “Glee” and “Big Love,” and the script for the 2013 remake of Stephen King’s “Carrie,” the play had been on Newport’s radar for some time.
It wasn’t until this season, her fourth full season with PTC, that she felt the time was right to stage it.
“It’s an offbeat play, and it’s got some bad language and it’s a little edgy, but it’s the kind of thing we love to do… These are the kinds of plays we live for, the ones that are challenging and unique… it’s the kind of thing that a big financial success like ‘Ring of Fire’ helps us do,” said Newport, referring to the season-opening Johnny Cash musical that ran last month.
With a cast rounded out by Brad LaBree as Franklin’s older brother and Dominick Varney and Amy Roeder as his parents, “Doctor Cerberus” is notable in that the two younger characters, played by LaBree and Layman, are full-grown adults, playing teenagers.
“We’re supposed to watch these characters grow up throughout the play,” said Newport. “The whole idea is that Franklin is undergoing a kind of transformation.”
The look and feel of “Doctor Cerberus” capitalizes on those horror elements in the play. The titular Doctor is seen on his own set, lit up by lighting director Scout Hough. Franklin is surrounded by old-fashioned TV sets, with stacks of them on either side of the stage and two enormous ones hanging from the ceiling, onto which projections by PTC marketing director and visual artist Magnus Stark are screened.
It’s campy, it’s spooky and it’s affecting — just the right mixture for a play that runs through the Halloween season.
“Doctor Cerberus” runs from Thursday, Oct. 22 through Sunday, Nov. 8, with performances Wednesdays through Sundays. For tickets, go to the Bangor Opera House box office between 10 a.m. and 5 p.m. Monday through Friday, call 942-3333, or visit penobscottheatre.org.