Trustus Theatre's production of "The Rocky Horror Show," running until Oct. 29, combines both nostalgia and new perspectives to create a more contemporary production of an established staple of musical theater.
"The Rocky Horror Show" is a parody of old B-movies and a celebration of sexuality that tells the story of a newly engaged couple, Brad and Janet, getting lost at a palace full of aliens and beginning complicated affairs. Although the musical was first produced in 1973, it was the 1975 movie that became a cult classic. Today, the film is the longest continual-run movie due to its movie showings every year, particularly around Halloween.
Trustus has produced the show seven times, with many cast members from previous productions returning to perform in the most current show. In particular, Walter Graham, an arts administrator for the Richland One school district, reprises his role as Dr. Frank ’N’ Furter, the mad scientist responsible for creating Rocky Horror, which he played in the 2016 production.
“I went to the artistic director now, Dewey Scott-Wiley, and I was like, ‘Hey, y’all should think about doing Rocky Horror one more time before I get too old,’” Graham said.
With this production, Graham got his wish. Graham said that returning to the role gave him the opportunity to make the character more of his own.
For this production, the director and choreographer Terrance Henderson brought his own vision to Rocky Horror by changing and updating certain elements of the show.
Although he has seen and loved the film, Henderson said he was not a Rocky Horror fanatic. His first time seeing the show performed live was actually at an earlier Trustus production. But a little bit of distance from the culture around the show was helpful in identifying his goals for the production, Henderson said.
“That was really present in my thought with this production, to try to see if we could find a way to bring new people to this piece, while still honoring the traditions of the things that people who really love it, what they're looking for,” Henderson said.
Part of this new approach was rethinking the musical’s relationship to race, sexuality and gender. Although seen as progressive in the 1970s, some of the content has aged poorly, according to Henderson. Dr. Frank ‘N’ Furter’s introduction song centers around a word that many in the trans community consider a slur, and his sexual affairs with Brad and Janet can come off as predatory.
“I was very intentional about losing a couple of things that needed to be lost,” Henderson said.
There were also new influences in creating these characters. In this production, the aliens Frank ‘N’ Furter, Magenta, Riff-Raff and Columbia are all played by Black actors. Henderson said that the inspirations for their costumes come from Black icons like Grace Jones, Rick James and Patti LaBelle, and the works of Black directors like Jordan Peele.
The Columbia character wears a prison suit akin to the ones in Peele's "Us." She also has a tank top underneath that says "Nope," which Henderson said "is this little wink to Jordan Peele"
Another choice was to cast certain roles nontraditionally in regards to gender. Columbia, a character traditionally portrayed as a woman, is being played by a non-binary actor. The Narrator and Eddie, two male roles, are played by women in the Trustus production. Abigail McNeely, communications director for Trustus, plays Eddie, a rock and roll biker, as a more fluid character.
“I think the fluidity in it is actually so much more freeing because it didn't feel like, ‘Okay, I'm just playing a man,’” McNeely said. “But instead I had the freedom to exist on the spectrum between masculinity and femininity where I could wear this pleather jumpsuit, but I still have winged eyeliner.”
Henderson said all of these aspects create a show that celebrates freedom. As he worked on the show, he said he found that it was really a show about finding community and belonging. Rather than emphasize the nostalgic humor, he wanted to emphasize that feeling of belonging.
“I think we always think of Frank 'N' Furter and the camp of it, the drag of it. But Terrance brought a new perspective into it,” McNeely said. “The idea of Rocky Horror really talking about what it means to belong to something or what it means to come into your own. It’s somewhat of a coming of age story.”
As Walter Graham said, “Everybody's at Frank's house because we want to find a place to belong.”
Tickets can be bought on the Trustus Theatre's website for $30. Sunday shows will be at 2 p.m. and the rest will start at 8 p.m.