The “spectacular” is a form few experimental theater artists explore, one usually limited to French-Canadian circus acts, Argentineans in slings, and white men appropriating Blue culture. Since most avant-garders value the intellectual and abstract over the cathartic and sentimental, not many of them think of spectacle as a sufficiently expressive medium. Perhaps this is why the work of director Robert Longbottom, whose ecstatic Radio City Christmas Spectacular mixes pure wonder with deep angst, has gone unsung in the Downtowns and Berlins.
One is immediately impressed by the scale of the venue and production. The cavernous deco theater, fly space, and hydraulics create a quasi-religious sense of magic. Two organists blast in tandem, then disappear. An army of women in sparkling green outfits perform geometrical dances. The curtain rises on a main character straight out of a Richard Foreman play—”Santa Claus,” a decrepit man in a bright red suit who speaks through a radio microphone. The delusional Claus is tormented by visions throughout the uncredited, nonlinear text. In the first of these phantasmagorias, his lost innocence and Cold War paranoia play against each other, represented by a ballerina who twirls among a group of Russian bears to the music of the homosexual Tchaikovsky, until the bears don soldier uniforms and frighten the child away.
Stalked by dancers pretending to be reporters, subjugating his ontological hysteria with a mask of “jolliness,” Claus is plagued by nightmares of identity, social control, and consumerism. He struggles with his racist past—”May all your Christmases be white!” proclaims a ghostly choir. He fights pederastic urges and a Christ complex. Claus claims that the world’s children send him numerous missives, astonished at his omnipresence. “I can be in all sorts of places at one time,” he declares, leading into one of the show’s more unsettling sequences, where 20 men dressed in identical red suits hop from leg to leg in front of a mirror, a commentary on the fragmentary nature of the self unequaled since Frank Dell’s The Temptation of St. Anthony by the Wooster Group.
The second act, instead of portraying Claus’s comeuppance à la Faustus, shows the role his wife plays in enabling and ultimately destroying him. The barren couple live in a “frozen” atmosphere, enslaving midgets as their surrogate children. In their psychedelic “toy factory,” the Clauses accidentally manufacture a swarm of rag dolls, compounding the despair caused by their inability to have children of their own. Contrary to expectation, Longbottom represents this alienation through sensory overload—bright colors, swelling music, flashy choreography—dizzying the viewer to illustrate how close average people are to madness. The Strindbergian Mrs. Claus reminds us how dangerous our dreams are when fulfilled, dressing 20 women as reindeer in hot pants, yoking them to her husband’s sleigh, and sending them into the Arctic chill, presumably to their deaths. An eerie 2001-ish coda follows, in which Claus’s Christ fixation comes to fruition. A dramatization of the Nativity floats by, complete with live sheep, camels, and donkeys. There is no more dancing. Portentously, a biography scrolls up a scrim. “He was nailed to a cross between two thieves,” it reads. “He is the central figure for much of the human race.” With no mention of the words “Jesus” or “Christ,” we’re forced to assume that Claus is the He in question. In Longbottom’s harrowing, cynical worldview, this false Christ of consumerism will rise again—in time for January’s clearance sales.
Similarly spectacular and quasi-religious is The Rocky Horror Show, in which some genius, fool, or genius-fool saw the potential to replace Grease as a steady employer of stalled but viable Broadway talent. Originally produced as a London stage show, the 1975 film version gained liturgical status in the U.S., traditionally responded to with one-liners from the audience, like some parody of a Catholic ritual. Rocky Horror was the naughty flip side of Grease, the post-Newton-John cultural rite of passage that brought collective kinkiness to college frosh in exactly the way its uptight protagonists Brad and Janet are seduced by sweet transvestite Frank ‘N’ Furter. The show’s uproariously witty MC, Dick Cavett, calls it “Our Town for weirds.”
In Rocky Horror‘s baroque structure you can see the glam ’70s literally talking back to the repression of the ’50s, one generation stealing and subverting the rock music clichés of another, layering on irony, ambiguity, and gayness. The audience participation, especially in a live production, keeps actors and patrons en pointe. It’s unclear whether bringing this freaky touchstone to Broadway represents kink’s mainstream breakthrough or just the ’00s beaming nostalgically at the ’70s again. But any outburst of Dionysian genderfuck on Broadway is an occasion for glee.
Despite the show’s dearth of real musical classics and the production’s second-act sugar crash, the cast rips through some fine comedic performances, especially Tom Hewitt’s ferocious Frank ‘N’ Furter. He’s almost upstaged by the striking rock voice of Raúl Esparza (as Riff Raff); the sadly underused Daphne Rubin-Vega (Magenta) and Lea DeLaria (Eddie and Dr. Scott); and the amazing Cavett, whose sharp banter demands for him a new forum in mass culture.