Jennifer Walls plucks The Rocky Horror Show out of its time warp

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal

Arpita Ghosal is a Toronto-based arts writer. She founded Sesaya in 2004.

The Company of TRHS, featuring Ian Backstrom as Riff Raff (photo: Scott Gorman)

Ah, there’s nothing quite like a sexcapade in an androgynous world of intergalactic Seventies glam-rock! The Rocky Horror Show is all this and more. To quote my husband, “it’s BONKERS, of course” . . . and Jennifer Walls’ production at Hart House revels in this simple truth. 

On the evening we attended, the audience at the sold-out show was, well . . . also bonkers. We entered the theatre behind an elderly lady with a walker, who was attending with family members of retirement age (her children perhaps?) Their animated chatter about the show made it clear that they knew it and loved it. They were far from alone. From our nonagenarian neighbour to countless teenagers, eight different decades were well- represented. And regardless of age, the large majority knew the show cold. They, too, loved it –  and they were there for a pan-generational, communal experience of this iconic musical. Their familiarity and predisposition to like the show ratcheted up the (dare I say it?) anticipation.

The Rocky Horror Show stage musical was created by then out-of-work actor Richard O’Brien as a satirical, humourous tribute to the science fiction and horror B movies of the 1930s to early 1970s. It opened in London in 1973 in a 60-seat venue at the Royal Court Theatre Upstairs, where it proved an immediate hit with audiences. The plot follows high-school sweethearts Brad (Will Mackenzie) and Janet (Katie Miller), who become stranded with a flat tire during a thunderstorm. In search of a phone, they stop at a gothic mansion and are allowed in by a butler, Riff Raff (Ian Backstrom). The owner of the castle is a transvestite scientist Dr. Frank ‘N’ Furter (Chris Tsujiuchi). Through the course of the night, Brad and Janet, their relationship and even their identities are challenged by various outcasts, including a biker Eddie (Aaron Cadesky), maids Magenta (Rachel Hart) and Columbia (Becka Jay), and the titular Rocky (Chiano Panth) whom Frank ‘N’ Furter has created in his lab. 

Chris Tsujiuchi as Frank ‘N’ Furter. Back: Margaret Rose as Phantom, Caitlin Becka as Phantom, Emma Houlahan as Phantom, Rachel Hart as Magenta (photo: Scott Gorman)

46 years later, the show’s success only grows. As we experienced, avid audiences come ready to interact with their beloved show – wearing colourful costumes and primed to fling both pre-scripted and extemporaneous responses to the actors’ dialogue. In her director’s notes, Walls states the writing of the show is “outdated and alienating”. So with her staging, she aspired to “present a show that our LGBTQ+ community, who is still fighting for visibility on a number of levels, feels seen, heard and respected by…”. Her interpretation delivers on that revisionary promise – which is a challenge because of the piece’s cult status. This production is terrific: well cast, cleverly staged, and tightly performed by an ensemble that is so, so clearly enjoying themselves and feeding off the audience energy throughout. Yes, the near-endless and predictable phallic jokes wear thin, but Wall’s innovative vision has yielded several casting coups. Heidi Michelle Thomas is flat-out hilarious as the Narrator, played here as a languid but searing lush who takes no prisoners with her bottomless cocktails and safety-be-damned physical comedy. For another, Natasha Buckeridge plays Dr Everett Scott as a gender fluid (or gender irrelevant) professor. 

One of the most iconic characters in the musical-theatre canon is Dr Frank ‘N’ Furter, the “sweet transvestite” mad scientist. For many, just the name will summon the image of a lascivious, wiry and red-lipsticked Tim Curry, sheathed in his corset and garters. Curry’s white masculinity is traded in for a far different portrayal by Tsujiuchi. His Frank ‘N’ Furter is a softer, even gentler presence, who first appears in angel wings, then ruffles with Kimono sleeves, and finally a shimmery gown. His colourful costumes and understated song interpretations imply a more nuanced, variegated personality, one that makes some of the earlier versions seem more static by comparison. And he is fundamentally good-humoured: his winking smirk embraces and enfolds the audience, and he welcomes impromptu audience shout-outs with warm and appreciative wit. And perhaps this is all the point – a part of Wall’s greater creative intent to reconsider the meaning of  “trans”.

As we exited the theatre, amid the smiles and the buzz of able-bodied people exchanging their reactions – some still singing and shimmying to the Time Warp – we deliberately slowed down to catch the reaction of that elderly lady in the row behind us. She, too, was smiling widely while manoeuvering her walker back up the aisle. And this may be the truest endorsement of Hart House Theatre’s production, which remains anarchically and irredeemably bonkers . . . and bridges generations, widens perspectives and creates fun. 

The Company of TRHS, featuring Will Mackenzie as Brad, Natasha Buckeridge as Dr. Scott and Chris Tsujiuchi as Frank ‘N’ Furter (photo: Scott Gorman)

News You Can Use

What: The Rocky Horror Show, by Richard O’Brien | Set Design by Brandon Kleiman | Costume Design by Kathleen Black  | Lighting Design by André du Toit | Sound Design by Jeremy Hutton | Choreography by Stephan Dickson | Directed by Jennifer Walls

Performed by Chris Tsujiuchi, Katie Miller, Will Mackenzie, Ian Backstrom, Rachel Hart, Heidi Michelle Thomas, Becka Jay, Chiano Panth, Aaron Cadesky, Natasha Buckeridge, Caitlin Becka, Bebe Brunjes, Aaron Craig, Emma Houlahan Jillian Robinson, Margaret Rose

The Band: Giustin MacLean, Iain Leslie, Erik Larson, Pieter Huyer 

When: On stage until October 12, 2019

Where: Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle, Toronto, ON

Info and Tickets: harthouse.ca/theatre

© Arpita Ghosal, Sesaya / SesayArts Magazine, 2019

Posted in Opera and Musical Theatre and tagged , , , .