The Rocky Horror Show
Book, music and lyrics: Richard O’Brien
Director: Donna Feore
Starring: Dan Chameroy
Venue: Avon Theatre in Stratford, Ont.
Four stars for the raucous opening-night audience of The Rocky Horror Show at the Stratford Festival!
Usually done up in tuxedos and gowns and counting former premiers and Governors-General in its number at this time of year, the spectators in Stratford, Ont., on Saturday instead were a feistier bunch, (cross-)dressed in boas and fishnets and corsets – and ready to scream and heckle at the top of their lungs.
Most of my enjoyment came from being immersed in this giddy, adolescent atmosphere that surrounded and subsumed director Donna Feore’s new production of Richard O’Brien’s bizarre musical parody of cult B-movies – which premiered in London in 1973 and was itself quickly transformed into a cult B-movie called The Rocky Horror Picture Show.
The participatory atmosphere of four decades of late-night, teenage-packed screenings of that film starring Tim Curry and Susan Sarandon has transformed the way people behave at its live performances – though, of course, only epithets are to be hurled at the cast, not toast or rice or any other objects. (The Stratford program and a preshow announcement gently reminds those in attendance that these are live performers.)
And thank goodness: A good three-quarters of the fun comes not from the material itself, but the interjections of the audience and the cast’s reactions to them – including, the night I was there, a couple of particularly dirty ones about Stratford’s biggest icons: Justin Bieber and the local swans.
The Rocky Horror Show itself is a mix of horror and science-fiction tropes, backed by 1950s-style rock ’n’ roll tunes dressed up in glam-rock clothing.
After their car breaks down on the side of the road, the all-American couple Brad (Sayer Roberts) and Janet (Jennifer Rider-Shaw) seek refuge in a nearby castle.
There, Dr. Frank N. Furter (Dan Chameroy), who famously describes himself in song as “a sweet transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania,” strips Brad and Janet down to their underwear and takes them to his lab. The mad scientist introduces them to his latest creation, a perfect muscle man named Rocky (George Krissa), as well as a colourful cast of psycho sidekicks that includes Riff Raff (Robert Markus), Magenta (Erica Peck) and Columbia (Kimberly-Ann Truong).
The Time Warp is sung, sexual experimentation ensues – and the plot descends into a confusion of chainsaws, ray guns, Nazis and aliens.
Feore’s high-energy rock-concert staging is the likes of which Stratford hasn’t seen since former artistic director Des McAnuff departed – but minus any signs of the seriousness that was in his productions of Tommy and Jesus Christ Superstar.
It’s most comically inspired in a pair of sex scenes in which Feore employs a taut sheet and pair of baton-shaped phalluses in a way that surely would make the low comedian in Shakespeare proud. An older gentleman I ran into earlier in the day asked me to let him know if a gag where Frank N. Furter picked pubic hairs out of his teeth made it out of previews to opening night. I can confirm that it did.
Chameroy, who regularly performs in drag as a character named Plumbum in annual Christmas pantomimes in Toronto, draws on his long history of being shouted at while engaging in theatrical transvestism to deliver a consistently entertaining clown take on Frank N. Furter. His ability to take in and take on audience taunts is only matched by Steve Ross as the The Narrator, who wanders on and off the stage and weathers relentless abuse.
The young cast that surround these two veterans is up to the show’s unique challenges. Markus’s hunched-over Riff-Raff hits impossible high notes; Krissa’s bare-chested Rocky flexes impossible obliques.
I was impressed by Roberts robotic heteronormativity as Brad and Truong’s anarchic intensity as Columbia; they are both stand-outs.
The Rocky Horror Show poses a bit of a critical conundrum, however. The songs are second rate, the plot doesn’t make sense, and the sexual and gender politics are stuck a time warp. But it’s pointless to separate the art from the experience – which was, for a non-cult member like me, a slightly baffling but refreshingly profane one after a week engaging with the sacred at Stratford.
The Rocky Horror Show (stratfordfestival.ca) continues to October 31.