‘The Rocky Horror Show’ at American University by Alexa Marie Kelly

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As Halloween creeps closer… what better way is there to celebrate than to smear on some glitter, slip on your fishnets, and dance? American University students dive into the spirit of the season, performing The Rocky Horror Show this weekend through the 26th at the Harold and Sylvia Greenberg Theatre.

This musical is not a picture show, unlike the 1975 now cult-classic film. The characters are unstuck from the screen. American University’s small, upbeat cast wrapped up its opening night audience, whirled them around, spun them out and left them to wonder, “Did that really just happen?” You leave dazed and entertained, singing the show’s infectious tunes.

The cast of The Rocky Horror Show: Sarah King, Ryan Burke, Stephanie Wilson, Matthew Rubbelke, Matt Meyers, Bryce Sulecki, Julie Nolan, Jesse Saywell, Jen Grunfeld, and Nicole Cusick. Photo by Eric Hian-Cheong Photography.
The cast of The Rocky Horror Show: Sarah King, Ryan Burke, Stephanie Wilson, Matthew Rubbelke, Matt Meyers, Bryce Sulecki, Julie Nolan, Jesse Saywell, Jen Grunfeld, and Nicole Cusick. Photo by Eric Hian-Cheong Photography.

Though The Rocky Horror Show is not plotless, it stresses chaos over structure, fun over function. The storyline of Rocky Horror—if you look hard enough for it—is that all-American couple Janet and Brad wander into the castle of Frank-N-Furter, a mad scientist with madder sexual impulses and a killer wardrobe.

The Rocky Horror phenomenon began with Richard O’Brien’s 1973 London play. O’Brien starred as Riff-Raff, Frank-N-Furter’s creepy assistant. Many of the original cast stayed with the franchise as it became a Broadway show and movie, including Tim Curry, the original Frank-N-Furter.

The movie flopped and the 1975 Broadway production had a short run (only 45 performances, although the 2000 Broadway revival ran for almost 2 years), but dedicated fans persisted (in fact it has the longest-running release in film history). Fan communities watched midnight showings of the movie, and the tradition thrives today. This culture of misfits snuck into mainstream films like The Perks of Being a Wallflower and the television show Glee.

American University’s stage production presents Rocky Horror in its original form, but it is heavily influenced by the film and midnight “shadow cast” performances. (They will be performing a special midnight show for American University students on October 25th). Shadow casts act out The Rocky Horror Picture Show in movie theaters as the film plays behind them. Audience members play with props, shout at on-screen characters and compete in games inspired by the off-the-wall movie.

American University director Cara Gabriel recreated the immersive environment of a shadow cast with some success. You could buy prop bags in the lobby, but the crowd used these extras sparingly. Still, cast members smashed the fourth wall. Matthew Rubbelke (Frank-N-Furter) delighted as he selected and serenaded uncomfortable viewers during his sultry number, “I’m Going Home.”

Lighting Designer Jason Arnold and Projections by Julia Peltier beamed Rocky Horror’s iconic floating lips as the show began. The show mirrors and mocks horror movies, which Arnold channeled in his inspired design. As Narrator Lexie Martin soulfully sings “Science Fiction Double Feature,” as Peltier’s clever projections showed old films and dancing robots.

The actors danced, chased, and fought with one another on Samina Vieth’s two-tired set, a playground dressed as a haunted house. Barbara Tucker Parker’s costumes stepped outside the Rocky Horror box. Creative splashes included Brad’s (Jesse D. Saywell) Superman undies and Rubbelke’s red corset and feathered coat.

Rubbelke had big shoes to fill for his role. He literally could fit them, as the tallest cast member even without his heeled leather boots. It was nice to see he avoided a Tim Curry impression, and it appeared, at times, that Gabriel held him back from expressive flamboyance. Even so, Rubbelke captured the character’s spite in “Wise Up Janet Weiss.”

Saywell’s Brad and Julie Nolan’s Janet delivered their most stellar scene with “Once in a While.” Brad began his melancholy tune after he discovered Janet’s affair with Rocky (Bryce Sulecki), a musclebound man manufactured by Fran-N-Furter. Saywell sings well and with feeling. But the show does not dip into gloom for more than an instant. Nolan and Sulecki turn this would-be serious moment into a hilarious juxtaposition, by switching absurd sex positions as Saywell emotes.

Matthew Rubellke as Frank-N-Furter. Photo by Eric Hian-Cheong Photography.
Matthew Rubbelke (Frank-N-Furter). Photo by Eric Hian-Cheong Photography.

Joel Iscaro impressed as Eddie, Frank-N-Furter’s ill-fated lover. Iscaro burst onto the stage, sadly lacking Meat Loaf’s motorcycle (from the film) but matching his arresting presence. Iscaro’s joy stuck with you even though his character could not stick around.

Ultimately, American University’s Rocky Horror grabs you, just as Frank-N-Furter seduces Brad and Janet. Its adept cast and crew pull you into their bizarre world. And, also like Brad and Janet, you will enjoy your stay.

The Rocky Horror Show plays through October 26, 2013 at the Harold and Sylvia Greenberg Theatre—4200 Wisconsin Avenue, in Washington DC. For tickets call the box office at (202) 885-2587, or purchase them online.