Gender Gyrations

Sex roles are flipped when they should have stayed flopped in CPT's Rocky Horror.

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The Rocky Horror Show Cleveland Public Theatre, 6415 Detroit Avenue Through December 23, 216-631-2727
A show already full of twists gets a few new ones this time.
A show already full of twists gets a few new ones this time.
There's only one movie you can see that will get you pelted by toast. During The Rocky Horror Picture Show, that happens when one character proposes a toast and the audience members immediately and helpfully launch a Wonder Bread assault. When it comes to cult films, Rocky is the granddaddy of them all, replete with garishly costumed freaks on both the screen and in the seats.

That flick was an adaptation of the stage play that's now bringing a totally different kind of holiday cheer to Cleveland Public Theatre. The Rocky Horror Show, written by Richard O'Brien, is a science fiction comic book wrapped in a rock musical and given a massive injection of satirical horror. The resulting production at CPT is full of manic energy that, regrettably for the audience and unfairly for the cast, is often muted by a sound system that continually muddies the words.

For the uninitiated (that's a virgin, in Rocky-speak), the plot follows the nerdish couple Brad and Janet as their car breaks down on a lonely road and they knock on the door of a nearby castle to borrow a phone. Two bizarre servants admit them, and the marooned duo soon meets the master of the domain, Frank N. Furter, who describes himself as a sweet transvestite from Transsexual, a planet in the Transylvania galaxy. From there, things start getting strange.

The film version was largely ignored and probably would have disappeared without a ripple back in the '70s. But some funky movie theaters started mounting midnight showings, drawing fans who dressed in extreme fetish outfits as a salute to the weird characters, if not just for the chance to dress in extreme fetish outfits.

The result is an ongoing kinky love affair with a show that is immensely improved by the shouted comments from the regulars -- called "sluts" -- who know the script inside out and are ready with snappy jokes, puns, and insults (when Brad is mentioned, it's rarely without the sobriquet "asshole" being contributed from some patron). Happily, the CPT show is drawing a quorum of sluts who keep the humor perking along, covering their heads with sections of The Plain Dealer during the rainstorm, just as the characters do.

A capable and nicely twisted cast, gender-wise and otherwise, manages to invest the first act with plenty of raw energy and just enough edgy nastiness to keep Rocky rolling. Andrew Marikis and Liz Conway are spot-on as dorky Brad and Janet, trembling as they're stripped down to their skivvies, literally and emotionally. And Carlos Antonio Cruz and James Ronald Jones II are excellent as Magenta and Riff Raff.

From there, however, the casting decisions by director Scott Plate become a little dicier. Alison Garrigan, an actress of enormous strengths, plays wacko Dr. Frank in a twist on a role typically played by a male. While it might seem innovative, in this case it's one bend too many, and a character who ought to be dangerous and menacing in corset and heels turns out to be merely fabulous-looking.

The inescapable fact is that a man in tacky drag exudes a different vibe -- one that even a woman as talented as Garrigan can't achieve. When she sings about being a transvestite, she doesn't look scary; she looks appropriate and, well, downright hot -- not exactly the effect the show is seeking. So when the mad scientist starts making love to Brad and Janet, in separate bedrooms, the ick factor drops like a lead bustier. Other roles are also gender-flipped, with Eddie and Rocky played by a hyper-stoked Monique McGregor and a supposedly studly Amy Pawlukiewicz. And Amy Bistok handles the narrator duties with panache.

It's too bad that this hardworking cast is saddled with a sound system that sabotages its efforts. Either the mix on the sound board is off, or there are no stage monitors (so the amplified performers can't hear themselves sing), but most of the song lyrics turn into muddled, incomprehensible strings of words that are now and then off-key to boot. This saps some of the fun, and in the second act, the actors' energy level mellows out too much, due in no small part to their battle with the mountain of sound snafus.

Even with those problems, director Plate manages to stage a sleazily endearing version of this ode to distorted sexual identities, captured in the priceless reappearance of Brad and Janet in Madonna castoffs. And as long as the brash and leather-lunged sluts keep showing up in the seats (no throwing of foodstuffs or other items, please), there will be enough laughs to keep anyone entertained.

About The Author

Christine Howey

Christine Howey has been reviewing theater since 1997, first at Cleveland Free Times and then for other publications including City Pages in Minneapolis, MN and The Plain Dealer. Her blog, Rave and Pan, also features her play reviews. Christine is a former stage actor and director, primarily at Dobama Theatre...
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