Park Square Theater revives cult classic musical with some modern twists | Theater Review by Tiffany Pauling (Winter 2020 issue)
Rocky Horror Picture Show by Richard O’Brien
Park Square Theater, St. Paul ~ September 27 through November 2, 2019
“Let’s Do the Time Warp Again” was heard from the stage of the Park Square Theater in its recent production of the Rocky Horror Picture Show directed by Ilana Ransom Toeplitz. In a fantastic take on the classic movie, the audience was transported to the wacky world of Dr. Frank-N-Furter’s mansion with some additional modern twists.
In the tradition of this musical play which first became a hugely popular play in London in 1973, then runaway cult classic film in the late ‘70s, audience participation was more than encouraged. The Park Square Theater sold $5 participation bags that were filled with squirt guns, newspapers, and other props for the audience to use throughout the show. One older gentleman squirted water straight into the head of an unsuspecting audience member during a rainy scene. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t have any newspaper to keep his head dry!
Following this tradition, a few of the audience members yelled call back lines to the actors. Dr. Frank-N-Furter, played by Gracie Anderson, egged us on. At times, the actress would break the fourth wall to encourage participation. When she said, “Antici . . .pation,” Anderson dragged out the pause for an extra long moment as the audience roared “say it” at her. She turned to the audience and wiggled her finger at us until even the most reluctant person was yelling it. Unfortunately, on the last night of the show, not many people knew all of the classic shout-outs.
Surprisingly, the Park Square theater did not identify the Rocky Horror virgins. In other productions, before the start of the show, all the audience members who had never seen the musical would be invited on stage and marked with a “V” on their foreheads. The Park Square Theater chose not to do so, allowing all of the show’s “virgins” to go unidentified.
The musical’s efforts to modernize not only brought the show’s campiness into the 21st century, it also created extra comedic moments, like when the cast was teaching Rocky how to do the floss dance from the video game, Fortnite after the intermission. The hilarity continued when they showed Dr. Scott, played by Korean adoptee Sara Ochs, coming to the mansion using an open laptop and a model wheelchair zooming on the keyboard. These moments were seamlessly interwoven into the show.
The modernization extended the director’s efforts to recognize today’s atmosphere around gender and sexuality. As Toeplitz points out in the Director’s Notes, at the time of the Rocky Horror Picture Show’s origination, “transvestite” and “transsexual” were “accurate words to describe” transgender, gender non-conforming, and non-binary people. In the current climate, the LGBT community often views these words as derogatory. Park Square Theater’s recognition of how certain words such as “transvestite” have changed in meaning since the movie was written made the production that much more enjoyable, especially as an LGBT member.
In another departure, Dr. Frank-N-Furter was played by the fantastic Gracie Anderson who shows the lead gender-playful role doesn’t need to be a male Tim Curry impersonator. Tim Curry strutting around in drag throughout the 70’s movie perfectly encapsulated the science fiction alien who just wants to make the most perfect specimen of a man. He was the picture of a free spirit and, at the time of the movie, a refreshing deviation from mainstream cultural sensibilities.
Anderson does this while also bringing the rock star presence, the fantastic voice, and the sass of a “Sweet Transvestite.” She entices Brad (played by Ben Lohrberg) and Janet (played by Natalie Shaw) into losing their innocence and discovering their sexuality through both subtle and outright seductions. Her strong performance highlighted the character’s ability to step outside of the gender and cultural norms of sexuality and power.
This production featured two Korean adoptees as part of the cast. Sara Och played a female Dr. Scott (traditionally a male role), the wheelchair-bound ex-high school science teacher turned government UFO researcher. Och does a great job singing and wheeling her way through the part, and helping her former students Brad and Janet escape from the house of horrors.
Possibly the most stunning performance of the night was by Korean adoptee Hope Nordquist in the role of Magenta. Her sonorous voice and glow in the dark neon lips ushered us into the show. Her look of sheer disdain throughout the performance perfectly captures the character’s hatred for this planet and everything that Dr. Frank-N-Furter stands for. No matter how wild or fun the moment was, Nordquist’s face remained apathetic. The only time she cracked a smile was when she realized she could finally leave the mansion.
The Twin Cities area has a strong Rocky Horror Picture Show tradition, where going to the monthly production in uptown is often a rite of passage for youth. With a diverse cast and recognition of LGBTQ issues, the Park Square theater’s modernized production breathes new life into this ‘70s classic musical.