The Rocky Horror Show

by John Stoltenberg

I’m probably jumping to the left and right of some gun by writing about a show that hasn’t had its press night, but I saw the first preview of this cult classic last night at Studio, and—dammit, Janet—there’s so much to admire about it that I can’t hold back. In brief (spandex, leather? what’s your pleasure?): It’s a hot hoot.

But this fascinating production does something even more revealing than all the thongs and harnesses and garters and bustiers that the beguiling cast comes (pretty much un)dressed in. What this production exposes us to is an extraordinary insight. Yes, this Rocky Horror Show does the science-fictional time warp again—with sing-along, clap-along, bounce-along exuberance. But it’s also a fresh perception about the passage of time in real life.

Perhaps I should explain what I mean, lest I come off as some dramaturgical wonk who propounds program notes that make sense only in the aridity of academia. DC theater already has enough of that. But I digress.

Richard O’Brien wrote the book, music, and lyrics for The Rocky Horror Show in the early 1970s, when the fun of a fond look back at late-night double-feature picture shows by RKO (to which Rocky’s first song pays homage) was a shared memory among the baby boomer fan base. Upon that collective experience of cinema, Rocky layered naughty and antiauthoritarian decadence, semisinful in its time. The show became a sensation.

But how does one stage decadence in 2013, when the culture is awash in it? Put another way: how do you do outré today? That’s the big challenge of, um, mounting Rocky now.

A lot of the audience last night were of a certain age, attending Rocky as if it was a recollected rite of passage. Maybe in their youth they danced in the aisles in costume at a midnight showing or twelve. Watching Rocky on stage now was—as a song says—like “going home.” And in eager anticipation, a few donned boas for the occasion. For this crowd, revisiting the music, lyrics, and story was like doing again the time wAARP.

But what of the generation not conceived until two or three decades ago? Their decadence is not their parents’ decadence; theirs is their own. And it’s porn. Their collective memory is not RKO double-feature anything; it’s 24/7 online porn, the culture they grew up immersed in, an all-access pass inconceivable in the 70s. That’s the insight with which directors Keith Alan Baker and Alan Paul, choreographer Michael J. Bobbitt, and costume designer Collin Ranney began their approach to The Rocky Horror Show. And the results are brilliant.

Just as O’Brien’s original Rocky paid sardonic homage to sci-fi, Studio’s production pays homage to porn: with parody, ironic detachment, caricature, and a pleather-wrapped plethora of wink-wink air quotes.

You know those stage fights that are so stagey you don’t even think someone’s really being hurt? Well, there was a fight choreographer during rehearsal to make sure no one would get injured. Studio’s Rocky is kind of like that. There’s all this play-acting of tropes from porn (thrusting, grabbing, pouting, posing, tongue flicking), yet no one is really doing anything sexual. It’s all as phony as an orgy in commedia dell’arte. It’s as if they called in a porn-sex choreographer to make sure no one would get turned on. Interestingly, then, the show becomes not so much a titillation as an astute and antiauthoritarian sendup of porn’s pandering to a generation that never knew a world without it.

So yes, it’s a hot hoot: some of the most fun live on stage in DC right now for mature audiences. But also, it’s a haute hit: one of those theater-going experiences you don’t kick out of your brain in the morning.