at the Organic Theater

Playing Frank-n-Furter in The Rocky Horror Show is a lot like playing Marc Antony in Shakespeare’s Antony and Cleopatra. No, really. Antony is a demigod, a colossus: a legendary warrior who’s become one of the three most powerful men on earth. And yet, by the time we see him, he’s already gone all gooey over Cleopatra–lost his manly desire to plunder, kill, and conquer, backstab and connive. He lolls around Alexandria wearing decadent Egyptian gowns; munching grapes with his beloved obsession, the queen; and offering his enemies a clear shot at destroying him.

An actor attempting Antony has got to be able to show us how low and flabby and dissolute the guy’s become, while never letting us forget what a paragon he used to be. We’ve got to feel Antony’s former grandeur even as we watch him peter out.

Ditto Frank-n-Furter.

Granted, he’s not quite the chronicle of Roman virtues that Antony was. But he’s no slouch either, having led an expedition all the way from his home planet of Transylvania to earth, where he engages in scientific investigations of the most sophisticated sort. Unfortunately, his investigations have gone a little haywire lately, and Furter’s generalship, like Antony’s, has been clouded by a tendency to overindulge himself.

A rather strong tendency. A kind of erotic Magellan–always willing to circumnavigate the horn–Furter’s taken to lolling around his castle in a leather merry widow and stiletto heels, bitching at the servants and luring unwary strangers into one or another of his beds. His intellectual capacities are entirely absorbed in a big technological push to build the ultimate muscle-boy plaything. The guy’s ruthless in his pleasure seeking and more than ripe for a fall.

And acting him, like acting Antony, is a question of balance. Of communicating authority and frivolity, all at once. Of demonstrating how far Furter’s slid in the eyes of his followers while giving us a dose of the charisma that made them follow him in the first place.

Tim Curry managed it, of course, in the movie. Which only makes things more complicated for somebody like Mark Sticklin, who plays Furter in the current stage version of Rocky Horror at the Organic Theater. Not only does Sticklin have to strike the aforementioned balance–he’s got to do it in a way that somehow overcomes our heavily Curried preconceptions of what Furter’s supposed to look and act like.

He tries. He comes close now and then. But he doesn’t succeed. Sticklin’s slutty vamp is energetic, endearing, and very pretty–but finally unconvincing. He never musters the aura of abdicated command that makes Furter’s frolics interesting and provides the rationale for his undoing.

In a way, it’s Sticklin’s virtues that hurt him most. To call his work here “energetic, endearing, and very pretty” may compliment the actor, but it damns the performance. Because Furter’s none of those things. He’s a vicious–albeit cheerful–sexual monster, whose apparent vitality is really compulsion in motion. So Sticklin’s most attractive qualities only serve to counteract Furter’s worst (or wurst), and the character ends up coming across like a puppy dog in fishnets. Not good.

Still, it’s not all Sticklin’s fault. Anybody would’ve had trouble establishing authority on opening night, what with Rick Netter’s sound system going on and off like Christmas lights at Chernobyl. Technical difficulties cost Sticklin dearly, especially when his mike went dead during what should’ve been his big, sexy, rock-‘n’-roll entrance.

But if you could suffer through the flubs and keep an open mind with regard to Sticklin’s Furter, it was definitely possible to enjoy this Rocky Horror Show on opening night. And I expect it will become even more possible in the future, as the production shakes down. Kelley D. Hazen’s direction is appropriately silly, offering flip little jokes here and there, as when Furter’s muscle boy–the eponymous Rocky–shows up complete with a Walkman strapped to his arm, or when a rainstorm is manifested by means of a hand-held sprinkler directed where it’s needed most. Touches like these liven up the dead spots, and establish a playfully arch atmosphere that tells the audience, Relax, we’re all here to have a good time. I hope more of this sort of thing finds its way into the show as it goes along.

The company’s fairly strong. Patrick Towne achieves with Riff-Raff–the ostensible butler–what Sticklin can’t with Furter, differentiating his version of the character from the version made famous by Rocky Horror author Richard O’Brien in the movie. Colette Hawley’s big voice is fine, and Colleen Kane’s helium voice is funny. What’s more, the chorus wails and the orchestra rocks.

Yeah, it’s fun to do the Time Warp again. This Rocky, together with Michael Butler’s Hair, signals the opening of a whole new frontier in the merchandising of le temps perdu: nostalgia for pleasure. Criminal though he is, Furter can look an awful lot like a fond memory in the era of AIDS and Ed Meese and $10,000 fines for that roach that fell between the sofa cushions sometime back during the Carter administration. You’re never gonna experience my kind again, he tells us. So settle back in your seat and stock up with your eyes.