“It was a night out they were to remember for a very long time,” says a Greek chorus of leather-clad phantoms. They’re referencing an unsuspecting couple’s venture into the hyper-sexual world of Dr. Frank N. Furter, yet the same could be said for the audience’s experience of Richard O’Brien’s cult classic, “The Rocky Horror Show.
Since its debut in 1973, the story of the “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania” has been told and retold on countless stages. And because of this ubiquity, Travis Greisler faces the following challenge in the Dramat’s fall mainstage production: to personalize the experience, and engage a Yale audience. After all, the plot of “The Rocky Horror Show” is more or less an afterthought. Instead, this distinctly Yale production gains its unique energy from the stage seating, the audience participants (nicknamed “Meatcurtains” and “Pussywillow”) and the calls of “Harvard Girl” to describe an especially prudish Janet.
Even before the lights dimmed, I could tell there would be an emphasis on immersive experience as opposed to plain performance. The pulsating music and moving lights gave the theater a Toad’s-like feel as phantoms ran down the aisles, calling up audience members on stage to perform pre-show rituals. As the bridge between the viewers and the actors, these phantoms played an especially crucial role, drawing in the audience with their dramatic narration and spontaneous performances. In particular, the frightening group’s red-headed ringleader, played by Thomas Stilwell ’16, elicited plenty of guffaws from the crowd with his quick-witted banter.
In an homage to B horror movies, the production follows the misadventures of a recently engaged couple, Brad and Janet, played by Christian Probst ’16 and Sarah Chapin ’17, who seek help at a nearby castle when their car gets a flat tire. What ensues is a mix of terror and sexual awakening for the two, as they find themselves in the home of Dr. Frank N. Furter, played by Tim Creavin ’15 with an easy confidence. Splitting his time between entrapping guests and creating Rocky (Bobby Dresser ’15), a handsome sex slave, Furter commands the stage in costumes that range from skin-tight to form-fitting.
At one point, once the doctor has split his old lover’s brain in two, he wonders if he has made a mistake in only giving half to Rocky. Before he can utter the words “a mistake,” an audience member shouts out “What does your mother call you?” These “talk back” lines are a staple of all “Rocky Horror” productions, and the audience must have impeccable timing to achieve the desired effect. Though initially somewhat shaky, this interactive dialogue (a mixture of classic Rocky lines and some Yale-inspired calls) grew stronger as the play progressed.
I think the sex and sexuality at the heart of the play resonates well with a Yale audience. “Rocky” was especially daring at the time of its debut, but today, the sexual undercurrents find a receptive audience on such a progressive campus. Perhaps the most well-executed scenes of the night were the parallel sexual encounters between the doctor and his two guests — both the gay and straight scenes play out in an identical fashion behind an illuminated curtain.
Most of the issues that detracted from the performance could be attributed to the opening-night learning curve: Singing was a little pitchy in the first act and there appeared to be some difficulties with microphones. Parts of the play itself have been called sloppy and unclear, but I think such criticisms miss the point of a “Rocky” production. Ultimately, the success of the play lies in audience enjoyment instead of the quality of execution, and on that count, this Dramat’s “Rocky” certainly succeeds. Just as Frank N. Furter breathes new life into his sexual playmate creation, so too do this cast and crew in their quirky take on an old favorite.