BWW Review: THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW at Blackfriars Theatre
Just in time for Halloween, Blackfriars Theatre is bringing Rochester the pinnacle leather-clad cult classic, possibly the only musical/science fiction/ horror/comedy in the theatre annals. Prepare to do the Time Warp, because The Rocky Horror Show has landed!
The Rocky Horror Show tells the story of newly engaged couple Brad and Janet (Edward Rubenacker and Danielle Raymo) getting caught in a storm and coming to the home of a mad scientist, Dr. Frank-N' Furter (Ed Popil, aka Mrs. Kasha Davis), unveiling his new creation, a sort of Frankenstein-style monster in the form of an artificially made, fully grown, physically perfect muscle man named Rocky Horror (Dan Howell). Via lasers, leather, cages, and rock n' roll, the night's misadventures cause Brad and Janet to question everything they've known about themselves, each other, life on Earth, love, and lust.
Director Danny Hoskins put together a production that is ambitious and perfectly suited for the Blackfriars audience and theatre space. Through an expertly crafted yet minimal set (Dr. Frank N' Furter's laboratory), the cast tells this kooky story with almost no props. In fact, the cast themselves often take the place of props, becoming a car, a castle door, and trees at various points throughout the show. The use of actors and physical space are a testament to Hoskins' artistic vision and understanding of the tools at his disposal.
Rubenacker and Raymo are the ideal Brad and Janet, convincingly playing wistful innocents who get sucked into the bizzaro, BDSM, punk rock universe of Dr. Frank N' Furter and his servants. They provide the much-needed contrast to the other characters in the show who wear fishnets, have spikey hair, and spend a shocking amount of time grinding and hip-thrusting.
Riff Raff (J. Simmons), Magenta (Kit Prelewitz), and the rest of the supporting cast are edgy, funny, and the perfect foundation for this wacky story to be delivered, especially during big ensemble numbers including "Janet Schmanet" and "Eddie's Teddy."
Stealing the show is Ed Popil, who was born to play Dr. Frank N' Furter. From his fabulous entrance (ascending from below the stage a la Ozzy Osbourne) to his tragic demise (spoiler alert!), he owned the show with his every strut, thrust, and belting solo. It takes a special kind of diva to play Frank N' Furter; you have to be seductive, dominant, charming, and all while wearing sky-high heels. Popil's performance is a masterclass in sex-fused, queen-level badassery.
At the risk of regurgitating much of what Resident Dramaturg Eric Evans wisely articulated in the production's program notes, Rocky Horror grapples with a lot of weighty sociopolitical issues that were present at the time of the show's conception, and still are today. One might not expect this, as Rocky Horror is best known to the laymen for its catchy musical numbers ("Let's Do the Time Warp", etc.) and punk rock aesthetic, but the story addresses sexual repression, psychedelic drug use, scientific experimentation, and gender fluidity, among many others. Over 40 years later, The Rocky Horror Show has a prominent place in the history of pop culture, LGBTQ culture, and theatre & film. Both the movie and musical have an active and enthusiastic cult following, in which fans attend screenings of the film and performances of the musical dressed in leather, interact with the cast/movie, and sing along to the show's many hit songs. More notably however, Rocky Horror is one of the first (or maybe the first?) major musicals to feature queer characters; in particular Dr. Frank-N' Furter, a sassy, fabulous, unapologetic drag scientist from outer space.
Whether or not Dr. Frank-N' Furter and other queer characters positively represent the LGBTQ community is a subject of passionate, years-long debate. Many viewers and audience members see Dr. Frank-N' Furter as one very few leading, memorable gender-ambiguous characters in any piece of pop culture ever, one who reverses the typical power dynamic and exercises slavish control over a cookie-cutter white bread couple from the suburbs. Whether or not that's problematic, they'd argue, it gives visibility to a non-gender conforming character and illustrates the suppression that people in the LGBTQ community often experience...only in reverse. On the other hand, some folks view Dr. Frank-N' Furter as a cartoonish amalgamation of every gay trope imaginable; loud, campy, leather-clad, promiscuous, and sexually abusive, reinforcing the negative stereotypes that the LGBTQ community has avidly tried to dispose of for decades. Regardless of where you fall in this debate, Rocky Horror is undoubtedly a controversial show, and it's up to each individual audience member to decide what place it should hold in the culture, and the impact that it has on how people perceive the LGBTQ community.
That all being said, Blackfriars' production is true to the spirit of this groundbreaking, sensory-maximizing musical. It's trippy, raunchy, avant-garde, and a ton of fun. If you're already a fan, you'll be an even bigger fan after seeing the Blackfriars production, and if you've never seen it before, you're in for a wild ride!
The Rocky Horror Show is playing at Rochester's Blackfriars Theatre until November 11th. For tickets and more information, click here.