Let’s do the time warp again

Portland's newest, suitably campy onstage "Rocky Horror" reveals itself as … Hedwig's mom from the tough times

Ask even an enthusiast what actually happens in The Rocky Horror (Picture) Show, and you may get a patchy answer. Ask ’em to sing you the songs, though, and you’ll get an earful!

When Rocky Horror premiered in 1973 as a live musical and then burgeoned into a 1975 feature film, no one involved could’ve possibly anticipated its universal appeal or its inexhaustible stamina. The movie defines “cult classic,” drawing droves of loyal fans to weekly midnight screenings, and Portland’s own Clinton Street Theater now boasts having the longest-consecutive-running show in the world, advertising last weekend’s screening as its 36-year anniversary. Never far from its origins as a stage show, Rocky Horror the movie has spontaneously inspired fans in the theater seats to morph into an ad-hoc ensemble cast, dressing the part, dialoguing with actors, and using props on cue. It’s probably safe to say RHPS levels of crowd participation are unparalleled in modern cinema.

Artslandia-ORAWreviewBut you probably know all this—blah blah, blah—and you want to know, “How is Portland’s currently running live Rocky Horror Show?”

You know, it doesn’t disappoint! Produced by Live On Stage and running at the World Trade Center through Nov. 8, it is as excellent as it has to be to satisfy such passionate fans, and the show further favors devotees with a “participation pack” containing all the necessary props (confetti, glow sticks, rubber gloves, etc) for full engagement.

Rocky Promo 3

Nartan Woods as Frank deserves due credit for pulling off a ferociously glamorous approximation of Tim Curry with a bit more “sister” snap; Matt Brown and Leah Seligman are an appropriately silly and sympathetic Brad and Janet; Eric Little is a regal, menacing Riff Raff; Claire Rigsby a simmering Magenta; Lindsay Schramm an effervescent Columbia. Gary Norman narrates with a crackle of old-timey radio, a wisp of Vincent Price, and a trusty Portland-style PBR tallboy in hand. Gabriel Mikalson as the naive Rocky and Darren Hurley as Eddie are, by comparison, just okey-dokey. On Saturday, Eddie’s stage time felt too brief, Rocky’s pauses too long. Dr. Frank N. Furter’s and Rocky’s spoken lines often got lost; whether the fault lay in sound mixing or diction was hard to decipher.

By the way—meow, scratch—this show’s young ensemble cast of phantoms/Transylvanians explodes with energy and drips with attitude! Doubling as actual ushers at the top of the show, they maintain a mood of sneering sleaze with their every glance and pose. And all are stellar singers and dancers. You can’t look away.

Now back to that question most people are bad at answering: What actually happens in Rocky Horror?

In a benevolent recounting, an uptight couple are treated to some cross-dressing pageantry that awakens their sexual awareness. In a sinister—yet technically literal—read, a) we learn that transsexuals are from another planet b) a psychopathic cult leader imprisons and rapes two virgins, and kills and eats a man. So what, exactly, makes that okay…triumphal, even?

The most homophobic TV preacher could scarcely indict transsexuals more damningly than the Rocky Horror storyline does. Taken as a statement, the piece would be appalling. But of course, it’s not a statement, it’s a reaction— a waggling rebuttal in fishnets pointed squarely at a demeaning political conversation already in progress. To borrow a phrase, let’s do the time warp: The Stonewall Riots were in 1969. Harvey Milk won his first election in 1977 and was assassinated in ’78. In England, from which RHS hails, gay sex was decriminalized in 1967, with the stipulation that it be “in private.” Wedge Rocky Horror amid those points in a timeline, and you see where its bad attitude is coming from. Like a chastised schoolboy who pantomimes devil horns and sticks out his tongue, Rocky Horror lampoons all of mainstream society’s most outlandish fears about LGBT (and especially “T”) persons: They’re not like us. They’re freaks! They’re unnatural monsters. They’ll molest you. They’ll use devious tricks and mysterious tools to “turn” you. They’re so depraved, who knows what they’ll do?

Satire, of course! RHS means the opposite of what it depicts! The introduction, which name-checks implausible scenes from Hollywood horror’s preposterous past, hints as much; we’re to take the show that follows as seriously as we take Flash Gordon’s silver underwear and the threat of a giant tarantula. Even so, falling on unenlightened ears and eyes, the show risks reinforcing stereotypes and entrenching trans marginalization. And let’s face it, less than 100% of the people who attend midnight movies are prepared to factor in historical subtext or even take a hint. Like nitroglycerin, Rocky Horror‘s message is a volatile compound: good for some hearts, but explosive if not handled with care.

Today, I can’t help but think of Rocky Horror as “Hedwig‘s mother,” meaning the way-paver for John Cameron Mitchell’s eloquent, moving trans/drag musical manifesto Hedwig and the Angry Inch, recently revived on Broadway starring Neil Patrick Harris for a Tony-sweeping, extension-earning run. As visually dazzling and musically satisfying as Horror, Hedwig‘s also much deeper and more humanizing for a generation that’s increasingly ready. I long for the day when, at the very least, RHPH screenings will expand into a true “late night double feature,” back to back with Hedwig and her hoards of equally-earnest blonde-coiffed cosplayers.

Blah blah blah. Should we see Rocky Horror, or not?

Of course! See it!

…for what it is.



Comments are closed.

Oregon ArtsWatch Archives