Of freak flags and time warps: The Ringwald’s production of The Rocky Horror Show

Originally published by EncoreMichigan.com

[Jacokes – image source: The Ringwald]

Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show is a bit of an artifact of its time, when queer culture and camp were avant garde, subversive, and downright frightening to most of America. Mike Pence notwithstanding, today we’ve seen such a mainstreaming of O’Brien’s core shock tactics (gender fluidity, B-movie tropes taken to their kinkiest extremes, gay panic, sophomoric raunch) that the show almost seems like a cuddly, family-friendly enterprise. I guess we can thank Andy Warhol, John Waters, Madonna, RuPaul, Logo TV, and Sacha Baron Cohen for that? When Drag Race – the likeliest heir to Rocky Horror’s legacy – is one of the most popular reality shows in America, you know we’ve turned a corner, even if the daily headlines, Fox News, and the comments section of any given Yahoo! news story lead us to believe otherwise. Hell, Fox themselves aired a (not very good) TV remake of Rocky Horror starring trans actress/activist Laverne Cox  … in response to Carrie Underwood playing Maria in NBC’s Sound of Music Live!?! Strange days indeed.

 

[Harris – image source: The Ringwald]

Ferndale, Michigan’s The Ringwald gets all of this. This milieu is their stock-in-trade. In fact, I can practically feel their collective eyeballs roll as they read that opening paragraph. Consequently, it is assured that Ringwald will do something unique with the material, while honoring the nostalgia factor that keeps Baby Boomers, Gen Xers, and Millennials alike coming back year-after-year to this show and its classic film adaptation. The film, of course, starred Tim Curry, Barry Bostwick, and Susan Sarandon in career-launching roles with a million toast-strewn midnight-movie showings.

 

[Wallace, Harris, Gagnon, Jacokes – image by author]

Directed with aplomb by Brandy Joe Plambeck (also brilliantly pulling out all the stops as exposition- spouting character Dr. Scott), The Ringwald’s Rock Horror Show does not disappoint. Tied loosely to the bicentennial anniversary of Mary Shelley’s Frankenstein (I wondered why everyone was doing these kinds of shows in the middle of summer – well, I’m seeing this one), The Ringwald’s production is a damn party. Yes, O’Brien’s book reads like a series of MadLibs pages strung together and makes about as much sense. However, the songs are sublime, and they are beautifully delivered here – kudos to Jeremy St. Martin’s music direction. The bonkers characters are a scream for talented actors like Ringwald’s to play. No bit of scenery remains unchewed; no audience member unaccosted. And it’s divine.

 

Defying convention, Plambeck transplants the show from a rambling gothic castle into a seedy biker bar, covered in punk rock graffiti and serving (non-alcoholic) drinks to audience and cast members – with smart, solid, economic scenic design from Stephen Carpenter. It’s a genius and immersive move. Squeaky clean (or are they?) Brad and Janet – representing the dreams and aspirations of middle-America to live boring, Instagram-friendly lives – stumble into said bar from the rain to use the pay phone after their car dies. While there, Brad and Janet meet a sordid cast of characters, all of whom are easy-to-judge but hard-to-avoid and totally at home in this setting. What Plambeck’s approach loses in outright spooky weirdness, it makes up for in sheer Muppet-y anarchic charm.

 

[Harris – image source: The Ringwald]

The bar is run by one Dr. Frank N. Furter who uses sex as a weapon AND a floor show. In a welcome bit of gender-blind casting, Suzan M. Jacokes takes on the role. Her acting style seems pneumatically engineered for an outsized, cartoonish part like this, and she doesn’t disappoint. While nuance may not be her forte, she has power, polish, volume, and command to spare. You can’t look away. I did miss some of the slithering insinuation we typically associate with the role, but Tim Curry’s gonzo performance will always cast a long shadow. Jacokes deserves plaudits for stomping it to the ground and making it uniquely her own. She’s like the caffeine-addled lovechild of Gloria Swanson and Rodney Dangerfield. She nails the anthemic “I’m Coming Home” number, with just the right hint of Liza/Judy-ish “little girl (boy?) lost” pathos.

 

[Wallace, Gagnon – image by author]

Matthew Wallace and Jordan Gagnon as Brad Majors and Janet Weiss, respectively, are an absolute delight, setting aside the faux innocence often brought to the roles and bringing a postmodern loopy assuredness that is fun to watch. Their love/hate dynamic in “Dammit Janet” and later “Super Heroes” is touching, thoughtful, and refreshingly believable, particularly in the midst of such a carnival-esque enterprise. Their characters benefit best from the updated locale. The hedonism of a late-night, dead-end watering hole on a stormy night (and with no vehicular escape) would indeed lead to some relationship topsy-turviness.

 

Brad and Janet arrive smack in the midst of Dr. Frank N. Furter’s experiments (in a bar?) to genetically engineer the perfect man and sexual plaything “Rocky.” Garett Michael Harris as Rocky turns in an eye-poppingly nimble performance that is more Iggy Pop than Tab Hunter. He’s terrific.

 

[Riedel, Bailey, Sulkey – image by author]

Janet takes up with Rocky; Frank takes up with Brad (and Janet). Brad and Janet’s former science professor Dr. Scott arrives in a wheelchair (and glittering pumps) to drop a whole sh*t-ton of backstory. Frank reveals that he and his fellow bar denizens are actually space aliens (!) who left their mission behind to get freaky with earthlings. Servants Riff Raff (effectively underplayed by Donny Riedel) and Magenta (Dyan Bailey – imbuing Magenta’s “over it” personality with her trademark Kathleen Turner-esque a$$-kickery) shoot up the bar with ray guns and demand a return to their home planet. Brad and Janet escape, sweetly acknowledging their love and their need for one another. Finis. Whew.

 

The ensemble work (Colleen Bielman, Ryan Kayla, Peggy Lee, Rebecca S. Mickle as “The Fantoms”) is exceptional, and the group numbers (“Time Warp,” “Floor Show”) really pop in The Ringwald’s tiny space. Efficient and effective choreography is provided by Molly Zaleski. Articulation in the group numbers sometimes gets muddled, but most of the audience knows these songs backwards and forwards so that can be forgiven. Austin Sulkey makes a fabulously exasperated/exasperating Columbia, whose love of delivery boy Eddie (a swaggering RJ Cach) ends in tragedy. Costuming on both Columbia and Eddie is great as they look like they just stepped off Pat Benatar’s “We Belong” video. Vince Kelley has done remarkable sartorial work here across the board, tying the updated setting’s aesthetic with the imagery we are accustomed to seeing in this show. Clever stuff.

[Jacokes – image source: The Ringwald]

Peggy Lee (no, not that Peggy Lee) deserves a special shout out for her work as “Fantom Flo.” She hauntingly delivers the show’s opening and closing numbers (“Science Fiction Double Feature” and its reprise). Her voice is exquisite – clear and crisp and evocative.

Lee also embraces “biker chic” better than anyone else in the cast, save ursine narrator David Schoen, who greets every audience member at the door, brings you to your seat, may pull you up on stage, and is completely “Hell’s Angel” intimidating in a totally adorable way.

 

This is a production put together by people who clearly love this show. The stage manager Holly Garverick shouts out all of the expected audience participation lines from the back of the house, encouraging the audience to interact with the proceedings, a la those midnight movie house showings throughout the 70s and 80s. One thought: let’s all retire yelling “slut” whenever Janet’s name is mentioned onstage. It may be tradition, but, in these “I’m With Her”/#MeToo days, it feels all kinds of misogynistic wrong.

 

[Jacokes – image source: The Ringwald]

Audience members are encouraged to purchase (for a nominal fee) a bag of props (playing cards, rubber gloves, party hats, bells, glow sticks, newspapers, kazoos, “Time Warp” dance instructions) to use at key moments during the show. Garverick may want to help with that a bit, as well, as the opening night audience didn’t seem terribly keen on using any of those goodies, save the newspapers.

 

On August 4, The Ringwald will perform the show in a special midnight performance, again to evoke those high school years when people convinced their parents it would be ok for them to go take in a showing at the witching hour.

 

[Riedel – image source: The Ringwald]

Why has Rocky Horror been such a success all these years? I often wonder. However, The Ringwald’s production reminds us that, while the show may not be Pulitzer Prize-winning material, it champions underdogs and misfits, encourages all of us to let our freak flags fly, and envisions a world where inclusion of any and all is the ideal … in one really weird package. That is why. And that message is more important than ever before. Vive la difference.

 

The Ringwald’s production of The Rocky Horror Show runs until August 6. For tickets, go to http://www.theringwald.com

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Lauren Crocker and Roy Boy

Reel Roy Reviews is now TWO books! You can purchase your copies by clicking here (print and digital). In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the first book is currently is being carried by BookboundCommon Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan. My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.

“Why should I die? I’m not the a$$hole.” Gone Girl (film review)

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[Image Source: Wikipedia]

Bruise black social satire or toxic tragedy (or both) of the fallacious state of American marriage, David Fincher’s dark film adaptation of Gillian Flynn’s dark best-selling novel Gone Girl is compelling and timely, but, at least for this viewer, not as visionary nor as iconoclastic as its hype would suggest.

Doesn’t mean it’s not a crackerjack film, but the ideas herein have been covered in many (and sometimes better) ways. While watching the 2.5 hour flick, I thought often of such clammy classics as The Children’s Hour, Vertigo, Charade, The Days of Wine and Roses, Who’s Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, Double Indemnity and even (arguably) lesser works like The War of the Roses, Fatal Attraction, Basic Instinct, and Body Double. Heck, I even sense a bit of The Scarlet Letter and The Crucible in Gone Girl‘s DNA.

However, what this new entry in mind-f*ck cinema does very well is distill all those disparate influences into a saucy, curdled stew of …

  • the petty evils spouses exact on each other
  • the caustic calcification of love gone wrong
  • the thorny economic necessity of the institution called marriage
  • the disastrous poisons that egomaniacal pursuit of outside adoration and praise introduces into the delicate private workings of any relationship
  • our present-day/post-OJ world of “he said/she said” criminal psychodrama
  • the preening desire of us Gen X’ers to glibly document our every thought, feeling, and deed
  • and social climbing run amok in a Recession-blighted era of unfunded McMansions, too many babies, and too little compassion.

Whew! And Flynn, efficiently and effectively adapting her own novel, partners beautifully with Fincher (for at least the film’s first half) in dangling delicious uncertainty before us. For those unfamiliar with the novel, in essence, Flynn has created a black comedy out of our TMZ/Perez Hilton/Nancy Grace-fueled penchant to celebrate, devour, abandon, and repeat on a 24/7 news cycle prurient stories of philandering spouses who murder each other, their children, or their neighbors or who seemingly evaporate into thin air, only to be found months later in someone’s basement, the bottom of a river, or hanging out at a shopping mall food court.

The “gone girl” in question – Amy – is expertly portrayed by Rosamund Pike (Pride and Prejudice, Jack Reacher) in a super-tricky performance (is she dead? is she alive? what is/was she up to?) that somehow invokes a lot of Cate Blanchett with a sprinkling of Kelly McGillis, Kathleen Turner, Grace Kelly, and Kim Novak. Amy vanishes (amidst broken glass and blood splatters) from the plastic-perfect home she shares with husband Nick (Ben Affleck being perfectly typecast for his prototypical Ben Affleck-iness) the morning of their fifth wedding anniversary.

The first half of the film tracks Nick’s many media, social, and other political missteps as evidence mounts, pointing to him as the likely culprit. Y’see, Amy and Nick, being sickening hipster fancy-pants, have played a “cute” game annually where she leaves him little riddles and clues to his anniversary present and sends him on a “darling” goose chase to figure out what “artisanal” surprise she has in store. So, this year, said clues take Nick (and his new friends, the police) closer and closer to a grotesque image of domestic brutality and potential murder.

But then, the movie reaches the halfway mark, and everything we thought we knew is turned sideways. I don’t want to spoil any of the fun, but, both Pike and Affleck do a splendid job offering characters as unlikable as they are relatable. At one point, Pike intones during her narration of events, “Why should I die? I’m not the a$$hole.”

They are supported by a strong cast that all neatly walk that fine line between dramatic potboiler and broad satire: an oily Neil Patrick Harris as Amy’s possibly sadistic ex, an even oilier Tyler Perry as Nick’s defense attorney, Saturday Night Live-alum Casey Wilson as a delightfully wackadoodle neighbor, Missi Pyle as an even wackadoodlier TV shock news host, and stage vets Carrie Coon as Nick’s long-suffering sister and David Clennon and Lisa Banes as Amy’s media-whoring parents. Trent Reznor’s and Atticus Ross’ slithering score is a character unto itself, providing the perfect note (pun intended) of menace throughout.

Fincher is so good at creating a claustrophobic world where tension and humor come from familiarity and contempt. I adored The Social Network and Fight Club, and Gone Girl nearly approaches the dizzying fever dreams those films crisply achieved. Alas, the film (and Pike) are burdened with a third act that veers away from the Hitchockian to the Verhoeven-ian. Amy’s narrative has a sharp post-feminism lilt for much of the film but devolves into vagina dentata foolishness in the film’s final moments. To me, that was disappointing, if not inevitable in our misogynistic day and age.

Maybe I’m just a killjoy, but when both characters are as believably rotten as Nick and Amy, let’s not default to the old poor henpecked hubby trope with a dose of Rosemary’s Baby-bait-and-switch as an otherwise fine dark satire rumbles to its denouement.

Like last fall’s superior PrisonersGone Girl aims to say something profound about the “little pink houses for you and me” that provide cold comfort when we are faced with the violent horrors those closest to us can callously inflict. Yet, Gone Girl falls short. In this current moment, when people are withholding marriage from one group by claiming its sanctity for another, Gone Girl is just the poison pill our hyperbolic national debate needs. I just wish the film or the book (or both) had had the courage to see its dark thesis through to the story’s final frames.

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Tomfoolery

Tomfoolery

Reel Roy Reviews is now a book! Thanks to BroadwayWorld for this coverage – click here to view.

In addition to online ordering at Amazon or from the publisher Open Books, the book currently is being carried by Bookbound, Common Language Bookstore, and Crazy Wisdom Bookstore and Tea Room in Ann Arbor, Michigan and by Green Brain Comics in Dearborn, Michigan.

My mom Susie Duncan Sexton’s Secrets of an Old Typewriter series is also available on Amazon and at Bookbound and Common Language.