Sunday, October 23, 2016

'Rocky Horror Show' gathers the faithful at the Athenaeum

Scott Keith as Dr. Frank 'N Furter.
The curtain speech is on the screen high above the Athenaeum's Basile Theatre stage, the iconic scarlet lips mouthing the usual welcome and warnings to turn cellphones to vibrate and place them at the pleasure zones of your choice. Uh...what?

OK, that's not quite the conventional pre-show advisory, but then, the presentation is "The Rocky Horror Show." That perdurable send-up of science fiction and horror movies of a couple of generations ago, linked to a pounding rock score and saturated in pansexualism and the pleasure principle, is back.

Zach Rosing Productions has again brought the Richard O'Brien musical to the downtown landmark designed by Kurt Vonnegut's grandfather, and so it goes. At the second performance Saturday, all cylinders were firing as the sturdy vehicle roared round its twisted track. It is scheduled to continue in that manner through Oct. 29.

The band's volume, with the vocal amplification on top, obscured many of the lyrics. But this is the kind of show where, if the verbal specifics aren't clear, the general sense of them is both well-known and almost instantly catchable. And given the setting, with Rathskeller entertainment thumping through walls and floor from below, dialing up to "11" in the theater is practically mandatory.

Wide-eyed Brad and Janet at the castle entrance.
The technical wizardry is keen and elaborate. As usherettes, Claire Wilcher and Erin Becker introduce the audience to the generating genre as a montage of film clips shudders behind them in retro black-and-white splendor. From then on, the spell is complete, from the wedding party that the innocents Brad and Janet leave to go visit their old science teacher Dr. Scott on into the thunderstorm and car trouble that dump them at the doorstep of Dr. Frank 'N Furter's castle. And that's just the crisply executed first quarter-hour.

We are guided through the story by the narration of Adam O. Crowe on screen, properly portentous, with the gravitas of Eric Sevareid and Vincent Price combined, at the desk of a dark-wood-paneled library. As apt as his solemn presence is, we are never long distracted from the lively unfolding of the onstage action, keyed to Scott Keith's virtuoso impersonation of Frank, cross-dressed and bearish, both needy and commanding. His chief victims, the flashy Eddie and the paraplegic Dr. Scott, had unquenchable vivacity in Joanna Winston's performance.

The mad scientist's household, filled out with adherents (or are they virtual slaves?) outfitted in inspired motley by Peachy Keen Costuming, cavorts around him, usually in the striking patterns of Mariel Greenlee's choreography. Everyone's excited by the imminent debut of Frank's creature on the slab in the lab. Brad and Janet are assured they are uncommonly lucky to be there, as the anthemic "Time Warp" rips from every throat. The nerdy ingenues, played with apple-cheeked earnestness and growing astonishment by Tim Hunt and Betsy Norton, are soon to sink, with their standards in shreds, into the Furter milieu.

Rocky, his dim-bulb mind compensated for by the radiance of his hair and physique, comes sweetly alive in the performance of Joe Doyel. The title character brings out most of the free-floating lustfulness of his creator, but not all of it, as Brad and Janet are soon to discover. There are no boundaries in this world, except the perennial one of deciding who's in control. That turns out to be the ostensibly loyal servants Riff Raff and Magenta, roles boldly etched and executed by Craig Underwood and Claire Wilcher. The climactic scene of vaporizing violence  is typical of the coordination and verve the production team brings to this show, from director Zack Neiditch on.

Castle denizens celebrate life, both natural and artificial.
The peculiar charm of "Rocky Horror Show," apart from its campy take on the movie subgenres that inspired it, owes a lot to the funhouse-mirror distortion of 1960s idealism in the decade that followed. At its most naive end, there's the boundary-free utopia of John Lennon's "Imagine." I see also in the background the controversial application of Freudianism to modern history by Norman O. Brown in "Life Against Death," once a fashionable intellectual puzzler that suggested universal victory over repression could be achieved.

What Freud identified as the polymorphously perverse sexuality of infants, seeking gratification wherever their developing senses lead them, might be extended into adulthood, Brown proposed in a book he later substantially repudiated.  Nonetheless, such a fatuous dream seems to energize "Rocky Horror," with a sci-fi escape tacked onto the end.

The hold the Frankenstein story continues to exert owes much to Mary Shelley's awareness that evil lies in the vain attempt to engineer life, not just in the experiment's monstrous result. O'Brien's fizzy concoction is rooted in the same awareness, though the audience is spared having its nose rubbed in it. The raucous fun rules, right from the wink-wink, nudge-nudge of the mad scientist's name.

The soporific crooner Perry Como might be rolling over in his grave when I admit here to being reminded of his hit song, the part that goes: "Hot-diggity, hot-diggity-dog, what you do to me, when you're holding me tight." Dr. Frank 'N Furter exerts such a grip in this buoyant production. Don't stop at putting your phone on vibrate. Power it down, and let "The Rocky Horror Show" power you up.

[Photos by Zach Rosing]

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