Dungeons and Drag Queens

Let's do the time warp again and again and again. The Rocky Horror Show returns, this time at Contemporary Theatre of Dallas, where the rip-roaring, raunchy fun starts well before the first glimpse of that "sweet transsexual," Dr. Frank 'N' Furter (played by Paul Taylor as a cross-dressing cross between young Marlene Dietrich and the crazy-eyed Joan Crawford of Berserk).

First there are cute boy and girl ushers bouncing around in crisp green military-style jackets and pillbox hats (at intermission, they bop onstage to dance "The Madison"). At the bar, apple 'tinis, a time-tested crowd lubricant, are poured double strong and tart as Granny Smiths. Goody bags provide all the props--confetti, glowsticks, newspapers, toilet tissue, toast, water pistols, rubber gloves--audience members will need to interact with the goofy goings-on onstage. The atmosphere buzzes with antici...pation.

Then comes the show. Rocky Horror is more than a musical spoof of old-timey sci-fi movies, as its fans, now pushing into dotage, have known for more than 30 years. It's a party, a happening whose motley guest list includes drag queens, mad scientists, aliens, rock-and-roll singers, a couple of virgins, a muscle-bound rent boy, some dancing whores and anyone who buys a ticket to play along.

At this show, the audience is part of the action. Heckling the performers not only is acceptable, it's encouraged. But you can't yell any old insult. Starting in 1975, at midnight screenings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show (starring Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick), fishnet-wearing throngs of kids developed a set routine of lines that added a layer of witty filth to the hokey dialogue. The unscripted patter started turning up at live theater versions thereafter, including the most recent Broadway revival in 2000. Shout-outs are such a traditional part of this non-traditional musical that for the CTD production, director Bob Hess brought longtime Rocky Horror fans to final dress rehearsals to make sure the actors knew when to pause.

The added "ad-libs" are rude, crude and hilarious. "Asshole!" the audience shrieks every time lead character Brad (CTD's exec director Doug Miller) introduces himself to anyone onstage. His girlfriend Janet (Cara Statham Serber), stripped for no reason to a pointy white bra and half-slip, draws cries of "Slut!" And when the creepy Narrator (played with droll sneers by Kevin Grammer) announces there are storm clouds brewing, the audience is supposed to yell, "Describe your balls!" just before he says "heavy, dark and pendulous."

That sort of puerile humor is what Rocky Horror's all about (the more apple 'tinis consumed, the funnier it gets). The story is roughly based on Frankenstein. A transgendered madman, trying to create the perfect male sex object in his spooky lab, instead finds willing bed partners in All-American virgins Brad and Janet, who stumble into Dr. Frank 'N' Furter's mansion when their car breaks down in a rainstorm (squirt those water pistols!). The doctor's Goth-garbed crew of Transylvanian minions dance "The Time Warp" and peel off their clothes for an orgy. Igor-like Riff Raff (William Blake) and his sexy pal Magenta (Marisa Diotalevi) turn out to be space aliens with ray guns. An Elvis impersonator (Jenny Thurman) gets vivisected by a chain saw.

The plot is as idiotic and illogical as an Ed Wood picture. The real appeal of Rocky Horror is the pounding rock score by Richard O'Brien, who also wrote book and lyrics. The music sounds as fresh and electric as it did in the '70s. (Nice work by musical director Adam Wright and his four-piece band.)

CTD's production captures all the kitschy sass and sports a cast of good-looking singers and dancers who perform with electrifying energy. There has never been a taller or more comely Frank than Paul Taylor. He looks like America's next top model trussed up in his red bustier and gartered stockings. His surprise entrance in the first act is a scream.

They spare no expense on production values at this theater, housed in what used to be a Baptist church. For Rocky, scenic designer Randel Wright has transformed CTD into a movie palace with rows of new seats, swaths of blood-red fabric billowing on the walls, an enormous screen that lowers over the stage, a runway thrust into the audience and a lofty perch overhead for the band. Lighting by Jason Foster provides a ghoulish glow to the proceedings.

This massive production feels like a big off-Broadway show. What seemed taboo about Rocky Horror three decades ago may now come off as campy and quaint, but it's still a blow-out good time, warps and all.

Plano Repertory Theatre explores the dark side of Camelot with its current production of the 1960 Lerner and Loewe musical based on the King Arthur legend. We get a sadder Arthur than usual in the wistful portrayal by Regan Adair (looking a lot like curly-haired crooner Josh Groban). Jessica D. Turner's Guenevere is a reluctant, hand-wringing queen, bordering on psychotic hysteria. Ron Gonzalez's Lancelot plays up the knight's egotistical delusions and ignores his humpy sex appeal. And old Pellinore (the marvelously funny Brian Gonzales) now seems to be suffering early stages of dementia.

It's an odd staging by Casa Mañana veteran Joel Ferrell. Not a successful one. This seems to be Camelot by way of Tolkien's gloomy Middle Earth. There's a dreary look to the thing and a leaden feeling to songs that should be frothy and romantic. "If Ever I Would Leave You" and "What Do the Simple Folk Do?" have been slowed to funereal dirges. "The Lusty Month of May" never sounded so lackluster.

Pointy-limbed cutouts of leafless trees loom over Randel Wright's cavernous set, which is built on so many sharp-angled levels, actors must leap like mountain goats to scale it. Ric Leal's costumes drape the actors in droopy tunics of unflattering beiges and browns.

The biggest failure is the lighting design by Laura McMeley. PRT never casts enough wattage on its casts. But in Camelot, entire scenes unfold in inky shadows completely obscuring actors' faces. All of stage left remains as murky as a dungeon. Upstage is lost in darkness for the entire three hours. When Arthur, Guenevere and Lance start singing, the lights actually go down instead of warming up. An overactive smoke machine makes it worse. In all that heavy fog on that unlit multilevel set, it's a wonder someone hasn't broken a leg.

In short, there's simply not/a less congenial spot/for happily-ever-aftering/than Plano's Camelot.

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Elaine Liner
Contact: Elaine Liner