Friday, October 31, 2003

Rocky horrors! A young, innocent t-and-a show

Published in the Portland Phoenix

They really should advertise that it’s teenagers prancing around in fishnet stockings, underwear, and lab coats. That would really pack in audiences. But, then again, they’re filling the house without any advertising at all.

A group made up mostly of high school students has been performing a live version of The Rocky Horror Picture Show for a year now in Portland, and will wrap up for the winter on Halloween night.

The live action takes place in front of a movie screen, with actors on stage mimicking movements and lip-syncing the lines. So the show is more about the costumes and the atmosphere than acting per se.

Scott Collard (Riffraff) has a scary bald spot befitting an evil butler; the fishnets are fabulous and the leather omnipresent. Even so, Mia Perron as Janet and Connor Tubbs as Brad Majors are innocents abroad among the Transylvanians, though in a sea of friendly (if weirdly painted) faces.

There are lines to be memorized, but not by the usual suspects. The audience has a part in the show, too, calling out comments on characters, superimposing their lines over the film’s dialogue, and drawing attention to arcane details of the film (as evidenced by one chant as a scene opens: "muscle twitch, muscle twitch!").

This is participatory theater at its finest, and Rocky Horror at perhaps its least scary. Often performed by adult actors who bear too-eerie resemblances to the characters, Rocky Horror can be an eye-opener even for the most cosmopolitan late-night freak-show addicts on "Sexchange Street."

This version is by high school students — the oldest one, Andrew Bossie (Rocky) is 20 — and even college types may be alarmed not at the content, exactly, but who’s shouting about dildos and the odd rim job. It is an R-rated movie, after all, being celebrated and performed by teens.

"Technically, we’re not even supposed to be in the theater," said Knate Higgins, the 16-year-old at the center of the show in his role as organizer, director, and player of Dr. Frankenfurter, a "sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania" who has found a way to create human life for sexual pleasure.

The experience of being at Rocky Horror has a youthful energy and an innocent flavor — if it’s possible to be innocent while repeatedly screaming the words "slut" and "asshole" — that many performances lack.

Usually, the whole show is performed in mimic, but Higgins said that gets "distracting and monotonous." And picking up from past Portland productions of the show, the cast only does some scenes.

"We just take our favorite songs from the movie and we just go up there and do them," Higgins said.

They do keep much of the flavor of traditional Rocky Horror performances, including a "virgin sacrifice" to select the best-costumed audience member and sales of $1 "bags o’ shit" filled with props to throw. (The money goes to help pay for the Gorham High School chorus trip to Disneyland.)

"We have so much fun doing it," Higgins said. Despite the audience attention, "we never get too stressed out because it’s Rocky Horror."

And the audience-participation lines have just as much gusto as ever, though with a few new twists, including references to Osama bin Laden, JonBenet Ramsey, Austin Powers, and the playoff performance of the Red Sox.

Higgins himself gets some good-natured heckling from time to time, but handled it well when I saw him — better than most stage actors, who aren’t exactly used to voices from offstage.

Overall, the expressive acting — somewhat like mime — is excellent, and we can give a pass to Bossie, who has only been with the show a couple of weeks and still takes his movement cues from the screen, unlike the other cast members, who have memorized their parts. The lip-syncing is also excellent, and if the soundtrack broke, they’d speak right up and not miss a single word.

Still, there is an element of seriousness about it. The State Theatre has come calling, asking Higgins to hold the show there in the future, and a student at the SALT Institute is doing a documentary photography project about the cast and the show. And perhaps serious isn’t bad, for a movie that stars Susan Sarandon. (Then again, this movie also stars Meat Loaf as a sax-playing motorcycle rider who becomes an evening meal.)

There is only one real question left: Does Gorham High School’s chorus director wash his hands after counting that money?

The Rocky Horror Picture Show
Directed by Knate Higgins. With Knate Higgins, Mia Perron, Connor Tubbs, and Andrew Bossie. At the Movies on Exchange, in Portland, Halloween night at 10 p.m. Call (207) 772-9600.

Backstage

Bob Demers of Open Book Players is the editor of Readers Theatre Digest, which has a new Web site, www.readerstheatredigest.com

Children’s Theatre of Maine is accepting reservations from high schools that want to bring students to see Romeo and Juliet, January 6 through 25. Tickets are $4 per student, and there are two performances each morning from Tuesday to Friday. Call Jeanne at (207) 878-2774 or email edctm@maine.rr.com

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