This was my second visit to Park Square Theatre in Downtown St. Paul. My first visit was just last August for the Trilogy of Agatha Christie one acts Rule of Thumb. It’s another of these theaters that has that mid-range seating capacity, more than 100 but not so large that you’d say there was really a bad seat in the house. They sell the usual nibbles in the lobby as well as a selection of drinks soft and hard, and as a nice change they offered lemonade. Both shows I’ve attended they have also had a featured cocktail designed to tie in with the show. There are plenty of dining options at hand, several of which share the same building as the theater and it’s two stages. I can personally recommend the Chili’s at the Loon Cafe, which must have a good relationship with the Theater as the manager was talking up the show to us as he showed us to our table.
Full Disclosure I’ve never seen a performance of The Rocky Horror Show before. Nor have I seen a public screening of The Rocky Horror Picture Show. I have seen the film at home, and am aware of the basic shenanigans that take place at the perpetual midnight screenings. So I wasn’t unprepared for this performance and was ready to do my best to participate if so required. Unfortunately the Park Square Theater wasn’t as prepared as I was. I stood in line at the bar in order to purchase my participation kit, only to find out they had sold out. This struck me as extremely poor planning, or a slapdash approach to the whole participation approach. I was there with a group of 12 people none of us were able to buy kits. The theater was not near sold out. And of the decently filled theater there didn’t seem to be many who had kits. This wasn’t the final weekend of the show or even the last performance of the weekend. I’m not sure how I feel about audience participation in a live stage production, but if you are planning to encourage it, then commit to the idea. In fact rather than selling a participation pack for $5 at the bar, raise the ticket price by $5 and include it with admission. I can see where full audience participation could add something unique but the weak and sporadic approach to the interaction came more as a distraction than an enhancement.
As for the performance itself, whether you are familiar with the show or a Rocky Horror virgin you will be entertained. The show opens with the narrator played with the perfect level of camp by Ricky Morisseau and an effective lighting and makeup effect that focuses on the lips of Actress Hope Nordquist singing “Science Fiction/Double Feature” which sets the tone for what is to come. Which is a mash-up of the science fiction and horror films that played on Saturday afternoons and late at night when I was a kid and sexual boundry pushing. We then follow Brad and Janet played by Ben Lohrberg and Natalie Shaw, a newly engaged innocent couple stranded during a thunderstorm after their car breaks down they seek shelter and the use of a phone at the castle of Dr. Frank-N-Furter. What they encounter there is an exploration of nightmares, fantasies, or perhaps a combination of both depending on your personal tastes. Once inside the castle they meet Riff Raff played by Randy Schmeling and a menagerie of odd looking and behaving people. Immediately they begin to wonder what they have walked into. When they break into the iconic song and dance “The Time Warp” Brad and Janet have decided it’s time to take their leave. Before they can leave Gracie Anderson appears as Dr. Frank-N-Furter the “Sweet transvestite from Transsexual Transylvania.” They are then ushered up to the Dr.’s lab and out of their wet clothes where they will meet Rocky Horror played by Rush Benson, the blonde haired bikini briefed Adonis that is the Doctors latest creation . Thus begins the transformation of straight-laced Brad and Janet from buttoned up virgins to …well that might be spoiling things a bit.
Lohrberg and Shaw perfectly handle the two poles of their character arcs. No one would claim that there are any deep roles in Rocky Horror and Brad and Janet are probably the least showiest of roles, but they are the two characters that undergo the most change throughout. Not getting lost in the background to characters like Frank-N-Futer, Riff Raff and Rocky Horror takes skill and they find all the right notes to keep their characters in balance. The entire cast performs well, Standouts to me vocaly were Hope Nordquist and Cameron Reeves as Magenta and Eddie, but it is a uniformly strong cast. The star of the show is Gracie Anderson, she has the most over the top role of Dr. Frank-N-Futer, There is a lot to play with, and a lot of people to play with, in this role. She seems to be relishing the outrageousness of the character that dominates everyone else on stage. There’s a nice little bit where she illustrates her dominance over one of her servants by literally putting her under foot. Anderson has a fantastic voice and a commanding stage presence, and she does a great job with the role.
So I struggle with how I feel about Anderson in the role. The Director/Choreographer Ilana Ransom Toeplitz writes in her program notes “Nobody is going to benefit from watching a man do a Tim Curry impression in a pair of cheap heels and fishnets.” as her justification for casting Anderson in the role. First of all I think this undercuts the role of all actors male and female to suggest that the only way to play a role is in the style of the person who made it famous. This is suggesting that if a man had been cast that’s all they could have done with the role. We live in a time when actors are pressured to relinquish roles as Transgender characters because they are not transgender. One school of thought says Acting is becoming someone other than you are and any actor should be considered for any role, we don’t have to be a Dr. to play a Dr. and we shouldn’t have to be a transgender person in order to play transgender. The other school of thought is that there are Transgender actors out there that are under represented and they should be considered first for those roles. We all know that there are more talented performers out there of all races, sexual orientations, gender identities, and physical abilities then there are roles to go around. If this was a small town in rural MN casting this show it would not be an issue what gender the person you cast in the role was. You would have a limited pool from which to cast and you’d pick the person that was the closest fit talent wise for the role. But this is the twin Cities, there would seem to be a nearly inexhaustible supply of highly talented people who could fill the role. This role is traditionally played by a man and there is a transgressive aspect to some of the sexual situations that come about later in the show that challenge societal taboos. While we could say that those same taboos are still challenged by the gender swap I think the effect is lessened significantly. Rather than presenting something that is still challenging to much of mainstream America, you have transferred the most transgressive element to the configuration that became nearly mainstream about the time Midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show began. It seems to me under the guise of not playing it safe Park Square Theatre’s production actually creates a less challenging show. The Rocky Horror Show probably lost the ability to shock decades ago, but it can still make us confront some of those old hang ups.
This is still a fun show, this is still a great cast making for a fun and engaging night out at the theater. Anderson does an amazing job. She is not responsible for the casting choices and should not be criticized for them, her talents and the role are well met. The production itself has a nice design, several lighting and staging ideas are quite clever and effective. Aside from the casting decision above the production is well directed and choreographed by Ilana Ransom Toeplitz. You are not going to go wrong with this production, it is fun, engaging and has a cast that really delivers. The Rocky Horror Show Plays through Nov. 2nd at The Park Square Theatre in St Paul, Tickets can be purchased online at https://parksquaretheatre.org/