She brushed past me, wearing half a black sparkly bra and half a gold glitter dress. She was clearly wearing a wig — impossibly thick, black, and curly — and when I looked at her heels, my feet ached for her. She would be going on stage any minute, but right now, she was walking down the aisles, laughing with the crowd before the sold-out performance.
Welcome to The Rocky Horror Show.
Nowadays, in a world of RuPauls, the idea of men in drag seems like just another Friday night binge. But when The Rocky Horror Picture Show, a cult-classic musical by Richard O’Brien, was released in 1973, the sight of Dr. Frank-N-Furter declaring himself to be a “sweet transvestite from Transexual, Transylvania” would have been enough to make more than a few jaws drop in theatres.
The story follows the chaste and clean-cut couple of Brad and Janet as they get engaged, then stranded when their car breaks down in a storm. They go to Frank-N-Furter’s castle, where they’re greeted by other Transylvanians who pull the couple into their web of sexuality and debauchery.
There’s a lot of lingerie. And fishnets. And platform heels. And in Jennifer Walls’ Hart House production — just in case the original costumes weren’t camp enough for you — the lingerie glows in the dark too.
Minutes before the show began, I became acutely aware of how out-of-place I was and how much I wished I had a feather boa. Though most of the audience dressed normally, I paid most attention to those who followed the show’s website’s suggestion to “dress to impress” and partake in the spectacle.
The woman to my left wore black Mary Jane high heels with rainbow-striped knee-high socks. The girl two seats to the right of me had on fingerless leather gloves. I was wearing a black cardigan and jeans.
I felt like such a Janet.
From the first number “Science Fiction/Double Feature” alone, it was clear that Walls didn’t limit her actors’ space. Rather, she told them to use the whole auditorium as their stage. She made clever use of the background actors called the “phantoms,” who filled the aisles and cheered to the song, riling up the crowd. They were one of my favourite parts of the show. I could call them transformative, but that would be an understatement.
As the subtly manic Brad, played by Will Mackenzie, proposed to a frustratingly clueless Janet, played by Katie Miller, the phantoms hovered behind the cutout church prop, jumping out with jazz hands.
In a sense, they were the set itself. Arms became windshield wipers. Bodies became doors. Thighs became the holster for a particularly bold penis-shaped water gun — don’t ask, you have to see it for yourself.
The Rocky Horror Show is acclaimed for its blatant disregard for anything within the sphere of ‘normal.’ Normal is drab. Normal is a word that deserves a sparkly silver stiletto to the head. But Walls didn’t just lean into the insanity of the storyline; she threw herself in, full-force.
Strobe lights showed off the glow-in-the-dark lingerie. When Frank-N-Furter, played by Chris Tsujiuchi, spoke, phantoms collapsed to the ground and shook in ecstasy. We found out that Brad wore strawberry boxers.
However, my biggest dissatisfaction is that, greedily, I wanted more.
Tsujiuchi embodied the nonchalant confidence of Frank-N-Furter exceptionally well, but there were moments where I wish he drew out the audacious snap of his character more. He tended to stay in the realm of dry humour, but that left an unsatisfied craving for the uninhibited sexuality and boldness of Frank-N-Furter. I wanted more self-indulgent vivacity, more of a saunter in his performance.
The show was strongest when it did what it does best: shatter the fourth wall in a self-aware fashion. And it did so glamorously.
As Columbia, played brilliantly by Becka Jay, went manic in a tap-dance frenzy during “Time Warp,” she screamed, “Look at me! Are you not entertained?”
Some questions you don’t need answered.
In true Rocky fashion, audience members were also encouraged to yell at the stage. I had never seen anything like it. During the storm, Janet yelled to Brad, “I’m coming with you!”
Somebody from the audience yelled back, “For the first time in your life!”
Sure, I could also dive into some of the deeper themes of the show here. The oppression and reclamation of sexuality, like when Brad and Janet took off more clothing as the show went on, until Janet ended in a bra and underwear and Brad stunned us in a sheer pink robe.
Or maybe I could talk about the celebration of being the other, of being unique, irreverent, and from Transylvania. But out of all the running gags, the one that’s the hardest to forget, the one that had the most spunk, was all the penises.
Props, of course. But nonetheless, it was like The Stag Shop was a silent partner. Dildos encircled the top of the control panel that built Rocky. Laser guns had mushroom tips. Because at the end of the day, yes, this was a ‘very professional production.’ The actors were all exceptionally trained, nobody missed a beat in comedic timing, and the dances were all snappily choreographed. But behind all of that, this was sheer, unadulterated entertainment at its core. And everybody on stage made sure you knew it.
Out of everything though, my favourite memory remains when the show ended and the cast all took their bows to a standing ovation. But as if our absurd campy experience wasn’t enough, the next thing we knew Tsujiuchi was asking us if we wanted to do the Time Warp again, and who were we to say no?
So the music queued up and we danced, albeit awkwardly with a limited range of movement, but together. I laughed with every pelvic thrust, every jump to the left, every step to the right. And even when we stepped out of the theatre into the cool, quiet night, I was still grinning like an idiot.
Because at the end of the day, you can say whatever you want about The Rocky Horror Show. But you can’t say that it wasn’t pure fucking fun.