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Time Warp Again

The Rocky Horror Show

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Richard O'Brien shakes off a shard of toast to the temple.
  • Richard O'Brien shakes off a shard of toast to the temple.

In 1973, Richard O'Brien was an out-of-work actor in London, smoking a joint every night as he typed away on a play he doubted anyone would produce. The lead of his Rocky Horror Show was a cross-dressing alien, the hero and heroine clean-cut kids, and the soundtrack rock and roll.

"It was a fringe theater event," recalls O'Brien, whose creation opens this week at the Beck Center in Lakewood. "I thought, after five weeks' run, we would have exhausted the kind of people that might have found that particular show entertaining." Instead, it spurned a unique phenomenon in theater history: a cult of fans who interact with the performers and nightly write themselves into the show.

"It's like playing tennis," O'Brien says of performing the show amid showers of toast, rice, and heckles. "[The audience] is serving you fast ones, and you have to pick them up and knock them back. The energy that comes from the audience feeds you. I love it."

Bob Simon, a Clevelander who will be playing Frank N. Furter in Beck Center's production -- as he has done for the last seven years, on both U.S. and European tours -- couldn't agree more. "Because of the audience, I don't get tired of it," he says.

Of course, audience interplay was not present from opening night. That was something that evolved when Rocky Horror just would not go away, and a film version met with similar cult success.

"Looking at it now, with clearer eyes, I think what we've got with Rocky is a reworking of Genesis," O'Brien says. "It works well on a deeper, subliminal level, and I think that's its strength; otherwise it's just a very camp piece of trashy theater."

But the original inspirations for Rocky Horror had little to do with myth. "It's really a combination of all the popular entertainment that I enjoy most -- or certainly did in those days," O'Brien says, citing in particular the emergence in the 1960s of pop art as a serious movement. "Understanding and celebrating the populist arts -- that's what Rocky was about: rock and roll, B-movies, sci-fi movies."

And naturally, sex. Not just the physical act, but the notion of sexuality.

"I really think the show is all about Janet," Simon says. "It's all about a woman coming into her sexuality and realizing she can be a master of her own destiny. It's about loosening up and having a good time."

Meanwhile, O'Brien is getting back to work, penning a sequel in which Janet bears Frank's child. "It's got to have its own myth tied into it," O'Brien says. "I think the Chosen One is fairly fertile ground. I'm not going to try and top [Rocky], but I have to at least equal it."

Let's just hope audiences can keep up, too.

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