It is impossible to talk about any stage production of The Rocky Horror Show without acknowledging the film life of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Richard O’Brien’s cult musical. Which, in his own way, video artist Brian Massman does with his use of film in Theresa Waldorf’s production on the Montana Theater stage. The movie’s on everyone’s mind. This is the movie that gave a generation and a half reason to sneak out of the house on a weekend night, gather up in a cluster of manic friends and shout sass at a screen that couldn’t talk back. Rocky Horror was made to be camp and then became exponentially campier with audience participation. The audience was a central part of the experience, and if you knew what to shout when Brad’s name was announced, it was because you’d earned the knowledge as a rite of passage, attending some gum-sticky theater three, five, 10 times.
Massman acknowledges this with the giant video installation that dominates the opening moments of this new production. He pieces together psychedelia and ’50s film clips, projects images that parallel and parody the action on stage. Like a movie, the show starts with a visual roll of credits, and when Brad and Janet drive out into a dark rainy night they have a vintage drive-away backdrop behind them, a witty use of film on stage. They find the castle, which Massman has blown up into a giant, antique image as a backdrop for a very nice effect.
“Phantoms” greet the audience on arrival, prowling the aisles with “participation bags” that hold a squirt gun, playing cards, confetti, a flashlight. Someone else hands out cue cards which tell audience members what to shout out and when (“Narrator—‘It was a night out they were to remember.’ You—‘For How Long?’”).
There is so much activity around Rocky Horror that it is difficult to concentrate on the show itself, and the distractions actually benefit the 1975 movie. The actors were static, stuck in the screen, frozen at a forgotten point in their careers. On stage, the actors must compete with these distractions. They must make us ignore how ridiculous a show this is, how lame a book, how incoherent a score.
Happily, for us, they do it. Decked out in Andrew Wells’ Madonna-goth-bondage costumes, heavy on the black vinyl and fishnet, they gave their all in Monday night’s last dress rehearsal. John Budge and Elizabeth Hinkley make a hilariously idiotic couple of virgins, each in possession of a strong voice that surprises us, coming as it does from the depths (or shallows) of their silly characters. Robyn Rose, Holly Hamper and Laramie Dean make unique impressions as the servants, in addition to creating an unlikely chorus line, and Jared Van Heel copes admirably with the unenviable task of standing nearly naked on stage all night as plaything Rocky. Nathaniel Peterson gives us a rousing Eddie—making love to his microphone as Robyn Rose clings to his leg in devotion—and a sprightly Dr. Scott.
Kurt Duffner plays Frank N. Furter, the sweet transvestite with a power complex. Duffner’s lovely voice overcomes the inane lyrics of his songs, and he must be commended, applauded and congratulated for taking on the role of gay man in drag, which is not an easy thing to play in Missoula, and not an easy thing to play on one’s own college campus. He stamps around the stage in impossible platform boots, shows off his red satin panties like a badge of honor and pouts with ferocious intensity. He is also skilled at all the tiny little bits of business that flutter on the sidelines of the show, keeping the humor up (he battles with himself hilariously, trying to keep his hands off Rocky’s groin).
Daren A. Eastwold choreographs, and his job seems to be mostly about showing off Frank, making him the center of everything. Either a single clutch of actors or two separate groups move in synchronized lines back and forth, flanking Frank or dancing behind him. The dance here does not have the unalloyed and inventive joy of Eastwold’s work in last season’s Best Little Whorehouse in Texas, but he makes good use of the old movie-crowd rituals. And don’t worry: You do get to Time Warp.
Rocky Horror is a game, a costume event, a pose. It’s not meant to be authentic in any way, and it isn’t. Although sex is the central topic—specifically, loosening up sexual straitjackets—nothing in the production is sexy. It’s all too camp to be erotic, too intentional to be arousing, like drag shows. By the second act, the show is downright bad, even though Waldorf’s production stays fun and lively. Nothing can truly conceal how tiresome the whole project is. Rocky’s pleasures have always come from its culture, the dressing up, the make-up, the midnight high of finding yourself in a crowd when there is nowhere else you’d rather be. Whatever O’Brien’s show’s shortcomings—and there are many—the event overcame them, the post-modern genre of spontaneous repetition inventing itself on the spot. Now, here in Missoula, in the early 21st century, sitting with a prop bag that you had to pay for on your lap and prompted by written instructions, the insolence is gone, the subversive energy is gone. The point of shouting lines at the screen was that the screen couldn’t talk back—that was funny—and that you had learned those lines by a sacred process of induction. Massman’s efforts go quite a ways toward making all of this new again, and the talented cast and crew treat their material with respect and dedication. Respect and dedication, however, might just be anathema to the experience Frank N. Furter wants you to enjoy.