Published in KPBS On Air Magazine May 1991
If “it’s the pelvic thrust that really drives you insane,” then get on your high-heeled sneakers. “Let’s do the Time Warp again!”
Hot patootie! Lace up your corset and prepare yourself for those sweet, Transexual Transylvanians: “The Rocky Horror Show” is landing at the San Diego Repertory Theatre.
If you’re totally clueless at this point, fear not. The instructions for doing the Time Warp are right in the song: “It’s just a jump to the left. And a step to the right. Put your hands on your hips, and bring your knees in tight,” etc. (See above for chorus and reprise). You gotta get with the program. This is a cult thing. We’re just coming out of the fifteenth anniversary year of the movie, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” a funky, sexy, fun-filled, audience-participation rock ‘n’ roll spoof of B-movies of the sci-fi genre that, in a brilliant marketing strategy, could only be seen at midnight .
But we’re getting the stage musical, the version that first opened in London in 1973, and ran for seven years. It starred Tim Curry as Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a performance that was immortalized in the film.
So what’s it all about, you ask, you “Rocky Horror” virgin? Well, it’s about a nerd-couple from Denton High School , Ohio (the original title was “They Came from Denton High”) that wanders into the celebrational unveiling of a mad scientist’s brilliant creation — the perfect man (Rocky). Brad and Janet are corrupted by Dr. Frank. (“Give yourself over to absolute pleasure,” they’re told. And they do. “Don’t dream it, be it.”). Rocky escapes. Eddie the rocker is killed and eaten. Frank’s hunchback henchman Riff Raff betrays him, and Frank is deported to Transexual Transylvania, in satanic ruin.
You can check it all out on your home video, if you want (amazingly, video rental was withheld until last November), but you’d be missing “everything.” Like those opening-credit lips, sensuously singing, big enough for you to be sucked into on a large screen. And you’d miss the audience. In 1976, the fans started yelling out at the characters on film. It was Labor Day when Louis Farese, a kindergarten teacher from Staten Island , felt compelled to shout at Susan Sarandon, when she uses a newspaper to protect her from a rainstorm: “Buy an umbrella, you cheap bitch!”
After that, the verbal floodgates were open. Later that month, September 1976, fans began dressing up like the characters, donning fishnet stockings, corsets, outrageous glasses, heavy eye-makeup. By Halloween, regulars started to jump up on the stage and mimic the action onscreen. The madness spread. (“Madness,” as the song goes, “takes its toll.”) The same lines were bellowed out identically in almost 200 theaters across the country. Resale shops nationwide did a landmark business in black corsets and high-heeled platform shoes (for men!), opera-length gloves with no fingers, mega-millimeter pearl chokers. In 1977, the props began to appear: rice thrown by the audience during the wedding scene, water pistols squirted during the rain storm, newspapers held overhead á là Sarandon. Toast, cards, toilet paper. These days, they frisk you before you enter the midnight movie. They’re not searching for weapons or drugs, just the stray party hat, noisemaker or surgical glove.
So, can fifteen years of programmed insanity be improved upon? The Rep’s resident rock ‘n’ roller, director Sam Woodhouse, thinks so. “I only saw the movie for the first time a couple of months ago,” he confesses. “I discovered it’s an astonishing but true story: Two Weber’s Bread kids from Denton , Ohio learn how to dance with people they don’t know. It’s a real metaphor for Southern California life in the late 20th Century.”
Woodhouse removes his tongue from his cheek. “People think it’s a silly story, but it does have a point. It’s a nudge to each of us to take a step out of our own lives, to dance with the Other… We might even consider mixing the Master Race with the Aliens in the audience.”
The Rep’s production will be no museum theater piece, says Woodhouse. “We are tipping our hat to the film, but creating our own feel. More funky, more soulful, more African-American rhythm and blues. Multi-racial casting. James Brown meets Liberace. A White-Afroed black Eddie. An Andy Warhol Riff Raff. A live onstage water ballet without any water.”
Underwear as outerwear? Yes. Fishnet stockings? Yes. “And maybe corsets with eyeballs on the brassieres. We’re determined to put a rocketship onstage. It’s party-in-the-theater time. This will be the most extravagant rock ‘n’ roll performance ever done in this theater. I hope steam rises up outside the building and surrounds the obelisk.” (Personally, I hope it energizes the obelisk and helps it return to Transexual Transylvania, where it came from).
Now don’t get nervous, in case you saw the Rep’s production of “Are You Lonesome Tonight?” Woodhouse did not cast himself as Frank, or Rocky. Whew. (It’ll take years to erase his Elvis from memory). But he might slip onstage for a few choruses of the Time Warp. Look for him in the back. He’ll be the one in the eyeball-corset.
“”The Rocky Horror Show” runs from May 11-June 2 at the Lyceum Theatre.”
©1991 Patté Productions Inc.