A decade ago, SFR's then-movie writer Emiliano Garcia-Sarnoff wrote a review of High School Musical 3 that still makes me laugh. Titled "Troy and Chad" (Oct. 27, 2008), the review characterized the film not as a prepubescent romp, but rather as "Disney's first movie about gay teenagers struggling with their super-obvious gayness while trying to live double lives as Disney-perfect straight kids." He went on to discuss the film as a serious piece of LGBTQ+ cinema, tongue firmly in cheek—or was it?
I think of this review, and this concept, often: taking a ridiculous and perhaps infantile piece of culture and elevating it to the realm of high art. The act of taking seriously something so un-serious has always appealed to me.
There is no better production to which I could apply this tactic than The Rocky Horror Show, up at the Santa Fe Playhouse through July 1.
For those who somehow don't know what Rocky is, it's a marvelously self-aware 1973 musical by queer folk hero Richard O'Brien that revels in its own campy horribleness as it lampoons the horror films of the first half-ish of the 20th century. The impossibly vanilla Brad (Santiago Baca) and Janet (Grace Lill) get a flat tire in a rainstorm and end up in the castle of Dr. Frank-N-Furter, a mad genderqueer scientist from another planet who has created Rocky (RJ Henkel), a perfect human specimen. Frank opens Brad and Janet's eyes to the concept of doing whatever the fuck you want (particularly sexually). Retro doo-woppy and rock 'n' rolley music plays throughout.
After the release of the movie version in 1975 (featuring the iconic performance of Tim Curry as Frank-N-Furter), it turned into the very definition of "cult classic." Across the country, art house movie theaters still run weekly midnight showings for which regulars dress up and act out the show as it plays on the big screen. For both the movie and the stage versions, the crazier and more brazen the audience, the better the experience is.
Under the co-direction of Michael Blake Oldham and Vaughn Irving, the main players in this cast could not be more enthusiastic, which is a necessity for a successful Rocky. Ghoulish siblings Magenta (Rikki Carroll) and Riff Raff (Mark Westberg), Frank-N-Furter's right-hand twins, are so deeply in their cartooney characters, it was weird to see them act like humans during breaks. Matthew K Gutierrez, who plays both rock 'n' roller Eddie and the benevolent wheelchair-bound Dr. Scott, may be one of the most hilarious people on Santa Fe's stages right now. (When I acted with Gutierrez in 2017's Unnecessary Farce, director Irving actually had to say on multiple occasions: "You're stealing the scene, Matty. Stop being so funny." His impeccable sense of timing and weirdness is present here, too, to delightful effect.)
Which brings us, of course, to Frank-N-Furter himself, a luminous Xavier Visage. About a thousand feet tall and with the quadriceps of a Greek god, Visage was perhaps birthed with the express purpose of playing this role. (I wasn't there, of course, but I can speculate.) Frank makes or breaks the show, and it's positively made here with Visage's effervescent performance and strong vocals. Further, technically, the show is an exciting experiment for the Playhouse: There is essentially no set, just glittery curtains, and narrative work from lighting designer Annie Haynes and master electrician and co-designer Kyra Murzyn turns an empty stage into a forest, a castle and a laboratory. A live band is led by music director Andrew Primm.
So, all those points are about this particular production. It sounds amazing, it looks fantastic, it's fun and stupid and, once an obnoxious audience is in the seats, it will be a vital piece of summer entertainment.
But what of the thing I said at the beginning—the virtue of regarding something so silly as high art?
At the risk of sounding like a tool: Rocky Horror is perhaps one of the most culturally important pieces of entertainment of the 20th century. In "Over at the Frankenstein Place," Lill's Janet sings in a sweet trill: "In the velvet darkness of the blackest night / Burning bright, there's a guiding star / No matter what or who you are … I can see the flag fly, I can see the rain / Just the same, there has got to be / Something better here for you and me."
Yes, she's talking about a literal castle full of aliens, but what this show has been for anyone on the spectrum of "different"—particularly LGBTQ+ kids—is a beacon showing the way to who you are. There is freedom in absurdity. There is a release in campiness. Somehow, the tighter that corset is laced, the easier it is to breathe; the higher your heels, boy, the closer you are to some kind of divinity. Your masculinity is part of your power, all you queer girls. Your fluidity is what's going to let you slide through adversity and sing and thrive. You need to be weird as hell, and once you embrace that, anything is allowed. Anything is possible.
And at the Santa Fe Playhouse for the next three weeks, you can (and should) do whatever you want. You can (and should) yell obscenities. You can (and should) sing along. Buy a $5 prop bag to be sure you have the right stuff at hand. This is the only way we can transcend the bullshit. You should be too intense.
And honestly, if you don't go overboard, that is when you fuck up. By not living wildly, that is where you fail. Be insane and brave. Have at it. You do you, and gloriously so. We see you, and we're with you. Go.
June 14: Michael Blake Oldham
June 15: Quinn Fontaine (LGBTQ+ Night!)
June 16: Cristina Vigil
June 17: John Hayes
June 21: Stephen Jules Rubin
June 22: SFP Board Member
June 23: Charlotte Jusinski (I get no $$ for this, folks)
June 24: Stephen Rommel
June 28: Bella Gigante
June 29: Barbara Hatch
June 29 Late Show: Vaughn Irving
June 30: Danette Sills
July 1: Michael Blake Oldham