The Rocky Horror Show: Spaced Out on Sensation

local arts reviews

Exhibitionism

The Rocky Horror Show: Spaced Out on Sensation

Zachary Scott Theatre Center Kleberg Stage,

through November 6

Running Time: 2 hrs

Don't tell me you haven't heard the ticking, the steady beat of seconds counting off the moments until the end of 1999, until the calendar's big rollover, until the end of 1,000 years of marking the earth's trip around the sun the same way, with a "1" in front. We all hear it, hear it constantly reminding us there's this great unknown out there, this monumental Y2K thing, looming out of our view like some creature from an old Universal picture haunting the fog-bound moors, some mutant insect from a Fifties sci-fi thriller lying in wait beyond the sand dune. You want up-to-date horror? That's it, my friend, and we cower in the dark, letting its tick-tick-tick, like that steady beat of the titular organ in Poe's "Tell-Tale Heart," drive us mad.

But now there's a light to guide us out of this darkness, and it's shining, of all spots, over at the Frankenstein place. In this Zachary Scott Theatre Center production -- one is tempted to say reinvention -- of Richard O'Brien's The Rocky Horror Show, the time is the final hour of the final day of 1999, and Brad and Janet are an uptight Everycouple spooked by the millennial bug. Their entry into the bizarre world of Dr. Frank N. Furter is not only an awakening of sexual desires (as it has always been) but a chance to face the future, which turns out not to be so horrible after all.

If it sounds like director Dave Steakley is doing his own Dr. Frankenstein schtick, piecing together a "contemporary message" play out of a well-worn cult musical and a few headlines, well, he is. But Steakley has the goods to make his experiment work. Powering it with high-voltage performers and designs, all in the same irreverent, playful spirit that made Rocky Horror the phenomenon it is, Steakley breathes life into his new creature -- and makes it sing and dance!

That spirit is evident from the moment we enter the Kleberg: Female cast members dressed as movie ushers of a half-century past show us to our seats as trailers of B-movie shockers from the Fifties promise cheap chills on the theatre walls. The priceless video clips from Steve Corder, Independent Media -- which also include an old Max Fleischer cartoon with eerie parallels to Rocky Horror and some hysterical vintage ads for small-town businesses -- do a time warp on the audience, putting us in sync with both the cinematic material that inspired O'Brien and that era's post-war Puritanism. That helps us see the seriously prim Brad and Janet -- Steven Michael Miller, all wide-eyed and long-limbed: a scarecrow in geek's clothing, and Jill Blackwood, willowy, wholesome, and cheerleader chipper: the picture of pert -- as millennial ostriches, avoiding the future by burying their heads in the past. But the future won't be denied, as we hear in a sonic burst of David Bowie's "Fame," heralding the arrival of Andy Warhol, imported by Steakley to act as narrator.

That insertion of the Sixties Pop overlord into this rock romp of alien mad scientists and sexual liberation is every bit as odd and surreal as it sounds. And yet it fits. As played by Karen Kuykendall (in an inspired piece of cross-gender casting), Warhol is cool, aloof, his face so lacking in emotion it might be a mask. The shock of white hair atop his head makes him look almost a ghost, quietly haunting the edges of the stage, snapping shots of the action with a Polaroid. He is one more strange creature among the freaky Transylvanians, one more figure of ambiguous sexuality, and, most apt here, one more mad inventor creating a new form of life.

It helps that, for the most part, Steakley and company leave us to make the show's conceptual connections ourselves. They appear more interested in playing around in this hybrid Y2K-Warhol-Frank N. Furter universe and enthusiastically flashing the results at us: a millennium survivalist with a shopping cart full of Campbell's Soup cans; Basquiat graffiti art on the floor and walls of the Frankenstein place/Warhol Factory; Columbia sporting two halves of a toy globe as breast cups; the newly created Rocky sporting a New Year's baby sash and diaper; a horned, caped Frank looking like a pumped-up Maleficent from Disney's Sleeping Beauty. The weird cross-cultural images keep flying our way, but they never threaten us, like some theatrical high-concept bogeymen; they're riffs on an idea, inventive variations to stimulate us, to make this trip through the carnival Haunted House a wilder ride. And whether it's Jason Amato's radiant icicles of light or Michael Raiford's spider-like lab chandelier or Leslie Bonnell's leather-and-license-plate biker garb for Eddie or John Stinson's sampling of Prince, they do that.

And they do it without ever detracting from the core story. The "Time Warp," the creation of Rocky, the seduction of Brad and Janet, the Floorshow -- all the beloved elements are intact, from Frank's pause while saying "anticipation" to Dr. Scott's fishnet hose. Steakley even includes the midnight-movie crowd callback lines, voiced by the female chorus. It allows fans to get from Rocky Horror the same decadent, subversive ode to pleasure they always get, but with whipped cream and a cherry on top.

The gist of it is embodied in Joe York's Frank. He taps into the same veins of sexiness and camp that Tim Curry did, but his physical presence is magnified. His chiseled frame, standing over seven feet in outlandish platform shoes, is heroically manly. But sheathed as it is in fishnets, and topped with that spectacular horned cap over a face slathered in eye shadow and rouged within an inch of its life, it's a burlesque of femininity. He's like a Wagnerian hermaphrodite, Siegfried and Brunnhilde in one body. It's a Frank N. Furter that's bigger, kookier, taken a step further to an extreme. It's something more. And it's tasty.

Actually, the best description of the show comes from its best-known number. Magenta and Riff Raff might have been speaking of the Zach production when they sang, "You're into the time slip/And nothing can ever be the same/You're spaced out on sensation ..." That's the experience here, a daring, odd, loopy, madly imaginative assault on the senses that can inspire one to join that enduring call: "Let's do the Time Warp again!"

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