The unruly brain and bad habits of a writer, artist, and grilled cheese sandwich-enthusiast.
“God bless Lili St. Cyr!”
– Janet Weiss
Some years ago, a-local-theatre-member-with-whom-I-no-longer-associate took issue with my pointing out a simple fact. Said fact being that when most young’uns these days decide to watch a cult film, their first choice will usually be Tommy Wiseau’s The Room. The aforementioned snowflake took issue with this because he flat out refused to believe that we live in a world in which The Rocky Horror Picture Show isn’t the go-to flick for outcasts. It was for him. It was for me. But we’re of a generation that’s just entering our 40s – to say nothing of those folks who actually made Rocky Horror the success that we inherited – so we’re not exactly in touch with what high schoolers and collegiate feel these days.
What I tried to explain to this idiot – and which I hope is clear to all of you reading – is that though The Room is the new quotable, audience-heckling flick for the Social Media Age, that does not make it better than Rocky Horror. Quite the contrary: The Room is popular for being “so bad it’s good”; Rocky Horror and all its incarnations grew (and continue to grow) because it celebrates those who don’t quite fit in. The Room is a poorly-made magnum opus praising misogyny. Rocky Horror is celebration of non-conformity. What this idiot didn’t get was that I wasn’t praising The Room, I was just exercising enough awareness to know that it’s having its moment.
Rocky Horror hasn’t had a moment. Like the classic it is, its uniqueness will carry on through the generations. It might not be as cutting edge as it was upon its inception, but it’s no less relevant than it was back then. Look no further than the fact that although Rocky Horror quotes are common enough to carry on entire conversations (which I’ve done), every attempt to make it mainstream has failed: the play is notoriously rejected by high school theatre departments; the film infamously bombed during its original run; plans to turn it into a franchise with the sequel Shock Treatment led to that film being rejected by even die-hard Rocky Horror fans (though it’s developed its own following of late); and the recent made-for-tv remake was rejected outright for watering down everything that made the show so great. Hell, that remake even got the title wrong: if it’s for tv, you call it The Rocky Horror TV Show or Special – the title reflects the medium.
But what, you may ask, has any of this to do with Ray of Light Theatre’s fifth and final run of their annual production? Well, other than proving that I’m smarter than someone with whom I no longer associate, I know that if any place in the US represents rejection of forced conformity, it’s the City by the Bay which birthed me. But, believe it or not, I’ve never seen Rocky Horror live. Not the play, not the film, not even Rocky Horror-themed karaoke nights at Martuni’s. I know, I know: “What kinda born-San Franciscan are you?”
Despite the show being produced regularly in the Bay Area – as I write this, there are currently two other productions at the Marin Musical Theatre Company and the San Jose Stage – SF productions have always been an event unto themselves, with Ray of Light’s annual production becoming a Halloween tradition, lo these last few years. In fact, many of the attendees opening night were dressed in costumes that weren’t even Rocky Horror-related (Wonder Woman and the like.) Sadly, they have to bring it to an end, as the biggest house in town, the ACT, will be staging their own large and lavish production next year. Whether that production becomes yet another ill-fated attempt to mainstream the franchise remains to be seen.
Besides, their version won’t have the blindingly blonde Courtney Merrell as Janet. It won’t have D’arcy Dollinger as a pitch-perfect Frank-N-Furter. And it almost certainly won’t have fucking Katya Smirnoff-Skyy as the Narrator. It likely won’t have characters weaving in and out of the audience the way RoLT’s show did. And I will be truly surprised if the “illustrious” ACT allows the amount of heckling that RoLT’s production actually encouraged. ACT puts on shows for a wide audience, but Rocky Horror‘s success has always been encouraging the audience to commit one of the biggest taboos of live theatre. (The biggest was committed by John Wilkes Booth.)
Yet, one could argue that the “audience script” for Rocky Horror – now so common now that the DVD and Blu-Ray versions of the film come with on-screen guides – represents a form of conformity. And there’s truth to that. The show isn’t about chaos, it’s about the illusion of chaos. It’s about everyone having a good time, not just one asshole having it their way and everyone else get with the program. In fact, that’s the goddamn ending of the show: the fun was had, but now we gotta go home. But… fun was had.
Rocky Horror is only conformity in that its devout resemble the religious. Yet, it’s the mainstream cis/hetero/WASP world that rejected all these folks. Unlike a traditional devotional, the church of Frank-N-Furter truly encourages its believers to take part, to find a home when their conservative home rejected them. Brad and Janet are the paradigm of conforming White American teens, virginal and chaste. It only makes sense that the one who brought them together, Dr. Scott, is later outed as a former fucking Nazi. At the same time, the brilliance of the show is how it holds Frank accountable for being the unchecked Id to Dr. Scott’s Super-Ego. Frank’s extremes reveal Brad and Janet’s true selves, but Frank does so before they’re ready and he refuses to stop. That makes him an asshole. An asshole who throws a helluva party, but still an asshole.
I do realize I’ve now spent more than 1,000 words talking about a story all of you probably know by heart, but have said very little specific to the production. To that end, let me see that Peet Cocke’s stage – with its classic movie monster posters, red velvet steps, and faux melted candles – appropriately add to the church-like feel of the proceedings. Director/choreographer Alex Rodriguez’s choices – like making Brad & Janet do the “Time Warp” as if they’re zombies in “Thriller” – are as inspired as Steve Bolinger’s musical director is on point (he appears to be using a hybrid version of the film and original show, with noticeable electronic additions). Sound designer Jerry Girard’s cues are a lot of fun, particularly the whip that “doesn’t” work as it should.
The reason I’ve spent so much time pondering the show itself rather than the production proper is because, although this is my first time ever seeing Rocky Horror anywhere other than my tv screen, I proudly think of myself as one of those who worship at its altar. I was one of those kids who didn’t fit into any category, then found himself in a video store with those red lips staring back at me. It’s not the “Time Warp” that stands as Rocky Horror’s legacy – by Richard O’Brien’s own say so, it’s the phrase “Don’t dream it, be it.” Don’t feel bad for not resembling the folks who were influenced by fucking Nazis, let your freak flag fly.
The obnoxious asshole I mentioned at the start is just like the Rocky Horror remake, in that he embodies everything wrong with trying to use that show to shape the world to how you see fit.. So Rocky Horror isn’t this generation’s choice for “Cult Movie Night” – so fucking what?! Does that mean its cultural significance has diminished in the 40-plus-years it’s been around?
I can’t predict what will happen when the ACT mounts their big-budget production, but I’m expecting it to be the difference between a storefront church and a gaudy megachurch. In the meantime, the greatest city in the world is putting on the one show that was never meant to play to elite and the bourgeoisie. It was meant to pack the house with the peanut gallery. So, grab your peanuts, head down to the Victoria, and watch this Asshole and Slut make their way out of the rain.
Don’t dream it. Be there.
The Rocky Horror Show is scheduled to run until the 2nd of November at the Victoria Theatre in San Francisco.
The show runs roughly 2 hours with a single 15-min intermission.
For tickets and information, please visit the production’s official site here.
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