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Old Folk Tales Never Die

'Rocky Horror' at City Lights and 'The Odd Couple' at SJ Rep both tap into deeper veins of storytelling

By Marianne Messina

THIS WEEK, as San Jose Repertory Theatre opens its run of The Odd Couple, a few blocks away, Richard O'Brien's The Rocky Horror Show plays at City Lights Theater Company. Though people refer to the former as a "war horse" and the latter as a "cult phenomenon," both works exhibit exceptional staying power.

Twenty-five years of interviews have forced Richard O'Brien, who wrote both the text and music for Rocky Horror, to conclude that he had stumbled on a kind of folklore. He has compared Rocky Horror's virginal couple Brad and Janet to Hansel and Gretel, locked up in the gingerbread house, having to escape the wicked witch--that would be Frank-N-Furter, "the sweet transvestite from transsexual Transylvania."

When pressed, O'Brien will even allude to Carl Jung. "Of course, none of that was intended," he said in an interview for TheCelebrityCafe.com. "I locked into the kind of bigger consciousness somehow and touched areas that people had thought about and kept hidden and hadn't really expressed. Rocky somehow or other releases that. But any good fairy tale of sorts does that, truthfully."

Even today, Rocky Horror's men in fishnets and vixens in purple hair offer release from cultural dress and moral codes. In the City Lights production, feline phantoms and bare-chested leather men creep into the audience, offering participation in charismatic hedonism--but from a safe distance. And Frank's indiscriminate predation releases the tension surrounding sexual appetite and alternative sexualities.

Likewise, the humor in Neil Simon's The Odd Couple--two badly mismatched bachelors (Oscar and Felix) share the same urban flat--has "pressure valve" written all over it. The play is hilarious, but at the same time, its unexpected depth might surprise theatergoers.

"I think Simon was delving into some kind of psychological exploration in these characters," says Odd Couple director Timothy Near. "You ignore that, and you can kind of miss the play."

David Pichette, who plays the obsessive clean-freak Felix, goes a step further. "This exact same situation ... could just as easily have been written as a thriller, a suspense play leading up to one or the other of them killing each other." In directing The Odd Couple, Near quickly became aware of the play's tendency to slip toward something darker than comedy, and she often found herself functioning as a "barometer," trying to offset those forces.

How does a director deal with the idea that shows as enduring as Rocky Horror and The Odd Couple might come with a lot of baggage--like loyal fans holding current productions up for comparison with originals? Neither Near nor Rocky director Tom Gough seems intimidated by audience expectation. Both believe their audiences will be largely unfamiliar with the works.

And judging from early crowds at Rocky Horror, the assumption is sound. At one Saturday show, only a few individuals could be seen mouthing the lines. A whole lot of people, varying in age from late teens to aging boomers, seemed simply enrapt. Even in folk-tale tradition, where the audience may well know all the lines, the tale is also created anew by the individuality of each storyteller--and actor.

"The guy playing Frank [Kit Wilder], totally fell in love with [Rocky Horror] when he first saw it in 1980," Gough explains. "In fact, he loved it so much ... he pretty much went out and bought fishnets right away." Wilder came to the City Lights production with very strong ideas about how Frank should be played, and Gough astutely gave the actor free rein. The resulting Frank-N-Furter makes bold with male audience members, adding a new layer to the rich mythology and got giving people time to miss Tim Curry.

Richard O'Brien's The Rocky Horror Show runs through June 21 at City Lights Theater, 529 S. First St., San Jose. $15-$35; 408.429.4200.

The Odd Couple runs through June 22 at San Jose Repertory Theatre, 101 Paseo de San Antonio, San Jose. $20-$48; 408.367.7255.

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From the May 29-June 4, 2003 issue of Metro, Silicon Valley's Weekly Newspaper.

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