Before there was the Rocky Horror Picture Show there was the Rocky Horror Show. In the early 70’s, an unemployed British actor named Richard O’Brien took the time on his hands and combined his love for musical theater, campy B-movie science fiction, rock ‘n roll, and muscle flicks into one of the strangest musical theater experiences ever produced. Add in the sexual liberation of the time and a small, experimental theater and O’Brien had the perfect storm for a weirdly wonderful, strangely sensual rock musical hit.
Since then, of course, the musical was made into a movie that tanked in theaters, but found its own cultural foothold as the most successful midnight cult movie of all time. Going to see The Rocky Horror Picture Show these days is countercultural smorgasbord fueled by high energy audience participation shout-outs, outrageous costumes, and flying toilet paper. But it was the stage musical that started it all, and it is always a rare treat to see it performed.
Although many people would laugh at this, Rocky is a classic descent into the Underworld story that combines elements of many of that genre of myths. Newly engaged Brad Majors and Janet Weiss go on a road trip to announce their engagement to their friend, Dr. Scott. Their tire blows out in the middle of woods on the proverbial “dark and stormy night.” The young couple is forced to seek assistance from the strange people that inhabit a nearby castle.
Then their lives change forever. They are gradually ushered into a world turned upside down. The master of the castle is a cross-dressing mad scientist who gradually transforms (some would say “corrupts”) the poor couple. He exposes them to a world where cultural norms don’t matter. Frank’s transvestism can be seen as a symbol for the weird new world: all norms of gender, behavior, and expectations are thrown out the window. Brad and Janet lose their clothing, their dignity, and eventually their self control. When they emerge, nothing is the same.
That may sound like a bit of a stretch for such a fluffy little musical, but if we see our myths as universal experiences, how is this any different? Two “young, ordinary, healthy kids” are forced to face the things they repress most in a strange world they can’t escape. In the process they are transformed. Brad and Janet are the campy, rock musical version of Orpheus or Persephone.
Going to see the show is much the same experience. When you see a midnight showing, the normal movie-going rules are changed. Where you are normally supposed to be quiet, here you are expected to scream vulgarities. Where you normally are asked to throw away your trash, here you are asked to toss it into the air. Where you are normally supposed to stay in your seat, here you expected to get up and dance. Perhaps this is why the movie became such a cult hit: it allows us a safe trip into a cultural underworld where we can express things we normally hide, where we can scream profanity at the top of our lungs in public and no one cares which gender’s clothing we choose to wear. It’s a rare chance to let our inhibitions down as the rules change around us, and seeing it live- with living, breathing actors, brings it to a whole new level.
Mysterium Theater has brought this rare treat to its October stage. Directors Marla Ladd and Elizabeth West push the campiness to full throttle, bringing out perfectly tongue-in-cheek, over the top performances. The costumes are a shade too bright; the props are garishly low-budget. This is a necessary note in Rocky Horror because audience members who are inexperienced with the show need to be quickly removed from the “sit in your seat and politely clap a perfectly measured amount of time at the end of each song” mentality and into the wild party presided over by everyone’s favorite transvestite/alien/mad scientist. This isn’t a play, it’s a party, and the direction clearly gets us into that mood.
The directors bring the same fun and fluff to their actors. Sibling servants Riff Raff (Stan Morrow) and Magenta (Rebecca Bollar) lead us into the campy otherworld with deliciously overacted performances. Much of the rest of the cast are humans trapped in this strangely enticing world, and their performances deftly show the extent of weirdness their character has taken on. Melisa Cole’s Columbia echoes Little Nell’s movie portrayal just enough to satisfy seasoned Rocky geeks, but she makes the role her own. With intentionally awkward tap dancing and a more emotions carried on her sleeve (or on her fishnets?), Cole treats us to a more complex but still fun-loving version of Columbia.
Brad and Janet, the unfortunate victims of rain, a flat tire, and an amoral transvestite, are played very impressively by Tony Perez and Kyleigh Cerro. Perez and Cerro arguably are the best all-around performers on the stage. Both possess an excellent voice which they use to full advantage during their signature numbers. Perez’s big moment, “Dammit Janet,” with its silly rhymes, sets the stage for the “strange journey” we are about to begin, more important is his performance of the little-known song that didn’t make the movie: “Once in a While.” Perez’ voice matches this crooning song of betrayal and pathos perfectly, turning what could be a slowdown in the evening into a touching and beautiful comment on life’s fragility.
Cerro rocks her role as Janet. Her transformation from ingénue to sex goddess is full and complete, reflected in her mannerisms, her face, and especially in her voice. Cerro’s early Janet is wide-eyed and wispy-voiced, but she belts “Touch-a Touch-a Touch Me” with self-confident gusto. When she fully accepts the “sins of the flesh” at the floor show, she glows with an inner strength. And yet, despite their newfound pleasures, both she and Perez do a wonderful job turning into lost little sheep by their final number. Brad and Janet are the only characters with a full arc, and these two actors revel in it.
Then, of course, there is the iconic role of Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Tim Curry’s film portrayal is cult movie legend. It’s one of those performances you almost can’t get out of your mind. It is so embedded in the minds of fans that it is almost impossible to imagine anyone doing it differently. Bryant Watson nails it. He is powerful and smart, manipulative and funny. His ad libs push the party flavor of the show, and he is a genuine singer whose voice soars every time he picks up a mic. The challenge of Frank is to portray a selfish, hedonistic power freak who ruins innocent people’s lives for fun while at the same time making him light and likable. Watson does this perfectly and his gorgeous voice is an added treat.
From a Pagan perspective, the fact that Brad and Janet discover their inner sexuality is not the problem. Nor is the breaking of normal societal structures and rules. The real problem is the lack of balance. We may work in the other worlds, but we are grounded in this one. Frank-N-Furter’s unfortunate ending happens not because of his sexual license, but because his “lifestyle is too extreme.” Brad and Janet fly from their own extreme to Frank’s.
In the final number, we are told that “Darkness has conquered Brad and Janet.” That’s not because they open up to the lessons of this cross-dressing Underworld, but because they let it take them over. They ate Frank’s pomegranate seeds. Everything is a good time until that happens. This production really highlights the sad results of Frank’s manipulative otherworld.
So maybe, despite almost 40 years of being told this wafer-thin piece of musical theater has no meaning, we can find a real lesson. Remember the time period Rocky Horror came out of: war, sexual revolution, and protest were raging all over the world. There is a time and place for all of them, but they all have their own dangers that, if ignored, can get you stuck in darkness. There’s nothing wrong with taking that “jump to the left,” but sure you know how to get back safely or you’ll be stuck doing the Time Warp again and again and again.