Let the Sun and Light Come Streaming: “The Rocky Horror Show”

The Rocky Horror Show at CST! First Rehearsal! from Central Square Theater on Vimeo.

Presented by Central Square Theater 
Book, Music, & Lyrics by Richard O’Brien
Directed by Jo Michael Rezes & Lee Mikeska Gardner
Music Direction by Jack Cline
Choreography by Ilyse Robbins
Gender Consulting and Intimacy Direction by Shira Helena Gitlin
Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Consulting by Kira Troilo

October 26 – November 26, 2023
Central Square Theater
450 Massachusetts Avenue 
Cambridge, MA

Critique by Kitty Drexel

CAMBRIDGE, Mass. — I have a lot of personal feelings about The Rocky Horror Show. It is my favorite, and I had to shake off my preconceived notions of what a production should be to give a fair critique. 

Preferences aside, a critic asks and answers two questions when critiquing: What did the artist attempt to do? Did they do it? The rest of the article is opinionated fluff and dramaturgy. 

  1. What did Central Square Theater attempt? The company produced Richard O’Brien’s The Rocky Horror Show for CST’s beloved audience of MIT nerds and nerd allies. 
  2. Did CST do it? Yes. 

A potential third question is “Did they do it well?” This question is subjective. Multiple perspectives can be true at the same time. 

  1. Did they do it well? Also yes, but it wasn’t to my personal taste. My taste is immaterial to what CST accomplished. The cast and crew should be proud of their hard work regardless of my biases. 

Central Square Theatre’s The Rocky Horror Show is more subdued than any other performance I’ve attended before. Audience members remained seated. The grand tradition of callouts was vastly reduced. The show’s overt sexual content was dampered. Even the sing-a-longs were restrained. (CST handouts encouraged the audience to sing with the cast but peer pressure from silent audience members relegated us to backup vocals instead of leads.) 

Nico Ochoa, Sebastian Crane, and Matti Steriti. Photo: Nile Scott Studios.

At first, this production reminded me of 2016’s hobbled and neutered The Rocky Horror Picture Show: Let’s Do the Time Warp Again with screen goddess Laverne Cox. But then, I pulled my head out of my ass and remembered, sometimes when a critic is having a bad time, it’s their own darn fault. 

Instead of focusing on what CST didn’t do. I refocused on what it did do. 

CST’s Rocky is the most queer production of this show I have ever seen. Over half of its cast is transgender or gender nonconforming. In a cis-hetero world devised to keep the queer community powerless and unrepresented, that’s heckin’ beautiful. Good job, CST. Now do it for non-Rocky shows. 

Rocky’s overt sexual content is not reduced; it is redirected. To make the staging more friendly to puritanical Boston audiences, directors Jo Michael Rezes & Lee Mikeska Gardner stage the show’s most prurient moments within the set’s square windows. We must use our imaginations to ascertain what the characters are doing with their chests, arms, and legs while also hearing the characters’ voiced consent to those same actions. They’re having a good time so we should too. 

The cast isn’t manhandling each other as in the cult classic film. Rocky Horror is quite succinct in communicating its messages of nontraditional explorations of individuality, sexual freedom, and hornily rebelling against suffocating gender roles. When characters do touch, the moves matter more. Their abbreviated interactions are metaphors for the horniness we don’t see while preserving the personal modesties of actors. In an oversexed world, restraint is a rebellious act. 

Horniness aside, some of the actors are more “in the room” than their costars. CST’s Rocky has a small cast. Actors onstage must broadcast a strong presence at all times. 

Emma Na-yun Downs and Michael J. Mahoney. Photo: Nile Scott Studios.

Bandmember and narrator Zoë Ravenwood does this extremely well. Ravenwood stands at the back of the theatre with the band for the during of the performance. She is strong but not forceful. With a calm voice that lulls the audience and cast, she takes us out of dance sequences and into the story like a parental surrogate out of a bad (good?) trip. 

While I have your attention, Zoë Ravenwood and her band open the show with a non-Rocky Horror set. Their music slaps. It’s slappy. 

Jacques Matellus holds our attention, plays three characters, rocks out, and represents our disabled community with panache. His rock belt is strong and sure. Tim Curry would be proud. 

Exuding a stronger presence may be as simple as pulling hair away from an actor’s face so we can see their eyes (Frank). Or, it’s as complex as developing the stamina to play a lead while expending enough energy to remain the center of attention on a stage in the round. It’s tricky stuff. 

We, the queer community, have been relegated to the sidelines of society. Some of us now live there on purpose, glorifying in the strange and unusual. Some of us would prefer to join mainstream society as normies. Whatever one’s social kink, our queer community members have a duty to pull as much focus as possible on the street and stage. 

We deserve the same respect as our normie neighbors. We can’t wait for them to give it to us. We must take up as much of our own space as possible. If one is granted an audience, make that audience see you. Take their attention by the proverbial gonads and feed it back to them with a rainbow spork. It’s exhausting and worth it. You aren’t doing it just for you; you’re doing it for all of your queer cousins. 

The Rocky Horror Show is a period piece. It was first produced at the Royal Court Theatre in 1973. Its book and lyrics contain terms that are outdated and problematic. CST hired two consultants: Shira Helena Gitlin, the Gender Consultant, and Kira Troilo, the Intimacy Director & Equity, Diversity and Inclusion Consultant. Thank you to Gitlin and Troilo for the work they are doing to make our community a better place!

A Rocky Horror Show that isn’t perfect to one’s arbitrary standards is better than no Rocky Horror Show at all. I started my Rocky Horror experience at Central Square Theater less than enthused, but I ended it gleefully dancing the “Time Warp” with the cast. Richard O’Brien’s opus is for everyone, not just a niche audience with expectations.  

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