THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW — More than Theater and Something Else

by Jack Shaw

By the time you read this, I doubt there will be time to see the last night of THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW BY the EXposed Theatre Company of South Jersey at the Eagle Theatre Company in Hammonton. I admit to being “exposed,” fascinated and somewhat puzzled by the experience. Obviously, this show is not for everyone; if you’ve read or heard anything about it, you know that. Curiosity brings many of us out. Those who know me will tell you I am hardly prudish, but this is not my kind of show, which is why I am also admitting to writing commentary here. I believe in theater that shakes us, stirs us and moves us. Granted, this British horror comedy stage musical (and this performance) does poke us and prod us, perhaps, where we don’t want to go—some of us. While others in the audience revel in the absurdity, outrageousness, and daring display of the show. Question: Is it still theater when so much of the original is lost or changed? Read on and I’ll try to give it the perspective it deserves.

L to R Jennie Knackstedt, Michael Angelini, Brian C. Peeke, Jaclyn Kay Baker, Andrew Cox: members of the cast of ROCKY HORROR by eXposed Theatre Company - ends tonight at Midnight!

Today’s ROCKY HORROR SHOW (the musical theater version) is far removed from its origins that date back some 37 years. What began as a campy spoof of science fiction has become a raucous display of sexual depravity and deviant behavior intended to shock audiences by being more outrageous than the last rendition. The spoof is nearly absent, lost in the sexual focus. The campy part is still there, although it is somewhat diminished. Or, it is overwhelmed by vulgar, tongue-and-cheek displays. What began as interactive theater became so much more participatory theater that the developer’s original intention has disappeared from view. For sure, songs and dialogue are lost in the audience talk backs and other participatory gestures. I’ll agree some of the songs and dialogue are spoofs themselves and aren’t needed for the ultimate effect—the current effect.

Now, I’m all for theater “in your face,” but here it was in your face and in your lap. I am grateful the actors had enough sense not to force their routines on audience members who did not welcome them. Groping, fondling, cupping, feeling up, licking, mock sexual acts, and other obscenities abound in this production. Most of that is on stage, but with an oh-so-willing audience, anything goes. So much so, much time is spent with cast and audience “tit for tat” (I meant that) while onstage cast members and other audience wait for the stage show to continue.

Not to take anything away from the actors; they do appear to be a talented group. Not sure the audience would be caught dead watching an O’Neil play, but they were definitely having a good time. The set was functional, although way too small a venue for this show. The result was that the cast was often sitting on audience members’ laps, literally, and leering provocatively in the aisle. I’m sure the director intended the “in your face” to be enhanced by the proximity; and perhaps, the end result in that the theater became the stage. Artistic, yes. Still, what was on stage was hard to see from anywhere but up close, but up close was a bit too personal. There did not appear to be a lighting design. I think the pen lights were to be a big part of any design, but it didn’t really work for me. Too much little boy with the flashlight…

I said I would come to perspective and the theater. THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW, at least this production, has lost some of the original intent, although I’m not sure if the intent was to have its audience change to such a participatory following. Educated society calls it a “cult” following. Not exactly the theater audience I have in mind. The original poked fun at science fiction, horror films and our sexual repression; today’s version concentrates on the last of those.

Greek theater had “sexcapades,” Roman comedies could be equally bawdy, and, let’s not forget the English and the Bard himself. Just so you know the original ROCKY is British and had a very successful run on the West End before we Americans got at it. If you are going to have a play about sex, have a play about sex; but don’t change and add so much sex livery and lingerie that you change what the play was to meant to be.

Theater should remain true to its original intention; if it doesn’t it ceases to be that work. And it ceases to be theater when it attracts a cult following and no longer moves us or changes us. Can anyone honestly say they are changed by THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW today? Are we less uptight because of our “exposure” to it? HAIR and OH! CALCUTTA served the same purpose in their day; when we see them today we are reminded of when they came to us. It was about the same time we found THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW. You could argue that the play evolved. I would say it did something; it became something else.

The audience came. The show sold out. Hard to argue with the numbers. What’s left is art—if there’s any left to discern.

by Richard O’Brien
Directed by Brian Peeke
Oct 22-30, 2010
EXposed Theatre Company of South Jersey
at Eagle Theatre
208 Vine Street
Hammonton, NJ

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Sean November 9, 2010 - 12:35 am

I would have to disagree with Mr. Shaw on many points in this article. While the intention behind most theater is to educate, move, or drive people to action, that is not true of all “serious” theater. What exactly does the musical “Anything Goes” do to an audience? What is the message behind “Guys and Dolls”? These shows are considered classics, and would probably warrant a rave review from any that came to see them, but do they move us in any way? Are we changed by the songs and dialogue that come along with “Bye, Bye Birdie” or “Grease”? Not usually. And yet, these shows are still considered to be “theater.” Just because a show attracts a “cult” following, just because there is audience participation, does not mean that it is not worthy of being considered theater.
The Rocky Horror Show is written to entertain, to make fun, to be overtly sexual. Sexuality is a huge part of our society. Congressman, priests, married men and women are found to be liars, cheaters, and owners of intense porn collections every day. Our society revolves around sex, and a show that puts it out there, that throws that back in our faces, that takes our deepest desires and fantasies and puts them on right in front of us, is doing what theater was meant to do. To show who we are, to show what we want, to challenge us to look at what our society has made us. And the fact is that our society has made us extremely sexual beings.

Jack Shaw
Jack Shaw October 19, 2011 - 3:44 pm

I was just reviewing my own review because I am about to see or at least write about another version of ROCKY I was asked to review, and honestly, one I expect will try to stick closer to the original intent. Why do I know this? Because I have reviewed other shows by the same group and have been impressed that they stayed true to the original intent. Even this company’s BAREFOOT IN THE PARK, a Neil Simon play, some experts won’t even deign to call it theatre but I will. I will because it reflected a period and it stayed true to it. It didn’t try to update it and thereby put a modern stamp on it. I don’t mind people who disagree with me.

I lay out my parameters for theatre as I understand it. This production was full of “shock” value for a modern audience, but clipped the originality of the play itself at its roots. There is nothing wrong with a definition of theatre–if you have one. I do and I use that to gauge my reviews. I didn’t say this was a bad production; it did not fit my parameters of theatre but “something else.” Read that anyway you want. The shows you mention are musicals, which by some definitions of “classic” theatre, do not do the things I say classic theatre does because it is not classic theatre. Nor is ROCKY for that matter, but ROCKY did have an impact and still does–just not the one I see as theatre. Some musical theatre does do those things, but usually the first time they are seen. Did you see any of those musicals you mention when they came out? That’s when they would have been “shocking” or “moving” to their audiences. Today, they are a part of history. To do them well is to enhance what the original meant to do. It is the critic who puts them in a perspective.

Even Neil Simon can be “classic” theatre–if it is done well, and holds to intention of the playwright, at least by some definition of theatre. What could give it status is one, it’s staying power, and two, the fact even if we know the lines, the story and the characters well it still reverberates with us. Let a director’s vision change it too much and it can lose that status by my account.

Is theatre our mirror? Sometimes. It can show us things we don’t want to see as well as the things that are obvious; good theatre may show us things that are not obvious. I don’t have a problem with ROCKY HORROR, but I did have a problem with this version. It didn’t dramatize; it flaunted. It didn’t make art, it played at it. It provided the opportunity for audiences to participate and actors to move away from the real purpose. The show suffered because of it (in my mind). Not only did it lose some of the impact (for me), but it left out two other parts of the original (which I think is as important), which at that time, were just as important as our repressed sex fantasies (which obviously aren’t repressed anymore). The play is just enough risque for a cult following and neighborhoods are willing to accept it. Believe it or not the musicals you mentioned “surprised” audiences with various behaviors deemed unacceptable or even risque in their day, but audiences aren’t surprised today. Know anyone who won’t go to a play because it has gays in it, or uses obscene language or has nudity, or has a subject matter that is unseemly to them? Can you imagine a cult following of OH, CALCUTTA? Why not? No, the police and community would shut it down as being pornographic. Today, but maybe not tomorrow. ROCKY, on the other hand, gets away with what the current society will accept. Cross dressing, isn’t nudity after all, and we, as a society, is still uptight in that regard.

Having said all this. There is nothing wrong with THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW. Does someone have to call it theatre? It was once and can be in other hands, but it doesn’t have to be anymore than BAREFOOT IN THE PARK has to be theatre art either.


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