You’re a virgin if you’ve never seen the Rocky Horror Show. On Thursday night I went to see a production of it at Dartmouth College, utterly unprepared. I was with a family of fans; each had shared delirious quips of excitement with me over dinner, but I still had no idea what the show was about. I was eager but entirely unprepared. So… the lights dimmed over the audience (flashing with bright feather boas and metallic suits), and piano chords swelled through the theater to begin the opening number. Icy rays shot from an overhanging disco-ball as a diva in hippie glasses, a black bob wig, and plaid schoolgirl uniform draped herself over the microphone, languorous and sultry and sinister, licking the air ferociously as she sang… welcome to the show.
There are no inhibitions in Rocky Horror; the cast crawled all over each other, all over the stage, down into the audience. The costumes were all bondage – fishnets, boas, garter-belts with straining hooks – except for the two bewildered innocents (Brad and Janet, played perfectly by Jay Ben Markson and Talene Monahon), who were soon stripped down to their white linen underwear. Their reactions to the weird inhabitants of the castle (Frank-N-Furter and his gathering of Transylvanians from the planet Transsexual) parallel the shock and delight of any newcomer to Rocky Horror. Once they are violated and their conventional morals flagrantly ignored, Brad and Janet become caught up in the absurd joy of the whole thing and end up camping it up along with everyone else. Possibly the greatest moment of the show, among many, was the sight of Brad stretched out onstage, one pale Ivy League leg sliding up through a feather boa, singing: “What’s this? Let’s see… I feel sexy!”
During intermission, the “creatures of the night” prowled down into the crowd, dancing with girls from the audience who were simply shrieking from happiness (and if you’ve never heard of the Time Warp, “it’s the pelvic thrust that really drives you insay-ay-ay-ayne.”) I watched one huge silver-haired boy in a frock coat and metallic-red platforms stand onstage, flicking a whip, seemingly entranced by his own power. He slowly walked down onto the floor and straddled a girl in her seat, leaning over and smiled leeringly at the row behind her: “And how are we all doing tonight?” The fourth wall is smashed, the shards ground into glittering dust under stiletto heels.
I think that everyone in the audience was grateful for the knot of cult-followers who came to heckle, call-back, dance and sing along with the show. It was the most devoted and involved display of fandom I have ever seen or heard of. Heckling the cast is almost an obligation – it’s the assigned role of the audience. This strange, sarcastically-tinged relationship between the fans and the institution of Rocky Horror itself stems from an awareness of the show’s lovable absurdity and cheesiness. The story is in many ways an homage to old, kitschy science-fiction/horror films of the 1950’s and earlier, with some ‘60s decadence and ‘70s androgynous punk mixed in for libidinous measure. It’s a cocktail of pop-culture delights, but really can’t be taken too seriously.
There are guidelines to the heckling, to prevent the fans from becoming too insufferable or showing up the cast; for example, every time the name “Brad Majors” is said, you shout “Asshole!” as vehemently as possible. You are also supposed to throw things onstage at certain moments (rice during the wedding scene), but the production I saw sadly did not allow that in the theater. There was an announcement intoned over loudspeakers before the show began that made the rule abundantly clear: “Attention audience members. This not the Rocky Horror Picture Show. That’s a movie. So please, don’t throw things at us. … But we’d love it if you’d dance with us.”
Those who didn’t want abrasive sexual encounters with the cast during intermission could mingle with some of the older fans congregated in small clusters around the lobby. They were reminiscing and glowing in their element, talking about how they’ve been going to see the show and doing the Time Warp since before these Dartmouth actors were in diapers. The movie came out in 1975 after running as a play in England for years, and quickly became an institution of proud freak-dom. It is traditionally shown in theatres at midnight, often accompanied by a shadow-cast (while the film plays, people mimic the action on-screen at the front of the theater). The audience that night was laced with these forever-fans, and their obvious delight fueled the show all the way through. During the Time Warp, there were many excited fans who got up to dance with the fantasies parading around onstage. It becomes clear very quickly that there is no actor-onlooker barrier needed for the Rocky Horror Show to run – as I said, there is no fourth wall. The fourth wall is your indifference; and in an involved and exuberant production such as this, the audience almost merges with the cast. The show is a transformative experience for everyone in the vicinity of its happening. As Frank-N-Furter hypnotically croons in the floor-show finale, “Don’t dream it, be it”.
Fishnets mean freedom; that’s part of the code for fans as well. That night, I saw purple ones, bright-red ones frothing with lace, rose-printed ones, basic black, flesh-colored, tights and knee-highs and thigh-highs. Everyone was dressed to kill, but Frank-N-Furter (David Mavricos) was the most magnificent. A tall, strutting transvestite with huge fluttering eyes, evil red lipsticked-lips and dominatrix knee-high black leather platforms (picture these stomping across stage as he’s holding a roaring chainsaw). In the show, he ends up making it with both Brad and Janet, personifying the delicious downfall for both of them. Frank is the unequivocal symbol of The Rocky Horror Show. It is sinister, voluptuous and fabulous, a campy rock-musical out to bawdlerize old movies and rough up a few virgins in a carnival of perverse pleasure.
As Dartmouth’s director writes in the program: “The Rocky Horror Show is, more than anything, a rock and roll show, and rock and roll is freedom. At Frank’s castle, anything goes, all answers are appropriate, and following your bliss is a requisite activity.” My evening captured this perfectly. Emerging from the theater into reality was a shock that left me speechless, but smiling with what I carried out with me.