Fourty-three years ago, Susan Sontag published her "Notes on 'Camp'" in the Partisan Review and gave intellectual legitimacy to a previously unheralded type of art. I thought of Sontag's essay as I watched Richard O'Brien's The Rocky Horror Show, currently playing at the University of South Florida in an exuberant, somewhat uneven but mostly enjoyable production. The show is camp itself: extravagant, silly and distinctly bisexual. I don't know if director Bill Brewer is familiar with the Sontag piece, but it's the perfect guide to what he's done on the USF campus. So here's The Rocky Horror Show, as foreseen by the late, lamented Sontag:
• "That way, the way of Camp, is not in terms of beauty, but in terms of the degree of artifice, of stylization." In USF's Horror Show, nothing is natural or realistic. Everything is artificial. Costumers Rojendra Adams and Bill Brewer have placed every last performer in an outrageously emblematic outfit, clad only in their underwear or in hot pants or in mummy-like bandages or in an idea of S&M leather. Everything signifies some lifestyle — geek or gay or outer-space alien — and everything shouts its significance without the least regard for subtlety.
• "There is a sense in which it is correct to say: 'It's too good to be Camp.' Or 'too important,' not marginal enough." The story that Rocky Horror Show tells — its content, its substance — is utterly and deliberately trivial. A newly engaged, entirely conservative couple, Brad and Janet, are driving one evening when their car breaks down. They go to a nearby castle in the hope of using the phone and instead find themselves in the clutches of the nefarious transvestite Frank 'N' Furter and his band of depraved acolytes. This is a special day for Frank: He's about to give life to a boy toy named Rocky. Rocky is re-animated; Frank has sex with both Brad and Janet (their first time, it seems) and then certain of Frank's entourage unveil themselves as aliens with laser guns. Sound meaningless? That's the point. Or as Sontag says later: Tin Pan Alley can be camp, but not jazz. Jazz is too serious.
• "The androgyne is certainly one of the great images of Camp sensibility." What makes Michael Titone, in the lead role of Frank 'N' Furter, so successfully campy is not just the fact that he wears women's clothes. More important is that his slender body might belong to a woman — like Jason Glass as his servant Riff Raff and David Bobola as the newly energized Rocky, he belongs to a physical type that is neither strikingly masculine (well-defined muscles) nor stereotypically feminine (well-defined curves). But Sontag also finds campiness in the "exaggeration of ... personality mannerisms," à la Bette Davis, Barbara Stanwyck and Tallulah. And once again Titone is right on target: He exaggerates each word, each move and each gesture, and the audience cheers resoundingly. They're in on the joke and loving it.
• "To perceive Camp in objects and persons is to understand Being-as-Playing-a-Role." The truly campy performances are those that announce at every moment that they are performances, not be confused with anything "real." This aspect of camp is abundantly exhibited by Jennifer Rodney as Janet and Brent Reams as Brad, the two innocents who wander into Frank 'N' Furter's castle and lose their physical and mental virginity. Both Rodney and Reams make it clear from the outset that they're playing at naiveté, that they're reaching not for the truth but for the stereotype. Similarly, Glass as Riff Raff is an idea of an evil servant, and Bobola as Rocky is more the concept of a sex toy than anything honestly sexual. When a character in this mix comes across as fully human — as Devyn Sims does, playing Frank's servant Magenta — it's actually confusing and doesn't quite register. What's a real human being doing in a cartoon?
• "When something is just bad (rather than Camp), it's often because it is too mediocre in its ambition. The artist hasn't attempted to do anything really outlandish." This is not a problem for Rocky Horror. The comedy starts like a horror movie, segues into a transvestite floorshow and then finishes as a science-fiction film. It features ridiculous dancing, irrelevant songs and really lousy sex flicks projected on a big oval screen. The props include an enormous barbell from which a character suspends himself, a hat made from a full-color globe of the earth and a life-sized motorcycle. And someone has the great line: "Planet shmanet, Janet."
• "The hallmark of Camp is the spirit of extravagance." Certainly this is the most over-produced show USF has offered in years. As it should be.
• "While it's not true that Camp taste is homosexual taste, there is no doubt a peculiar affinity and overlap." Only here does Sontag understate the case: Camp, for whatever complex reasons, has developed as a particularly gay approach to art, at least when it's done consciously. See the plays of Charles Ludlam for corroboration.
One other note: At the performance I attended, the Tampa Tribune's Daniel Ruth played the role of the Narrator. He did a fine job, and an ironic one: He stood for reality in a pageant devoted to the artificial.
Also I should mention that the best singers in the show are Titone, Glass, Rodney and Sims. And Andy Frye's choreography was pleasing but inconsistent; not all the performers are quite ready for a dance concert.
Finally, a quote from Oscar Wilde, as cited in the Sontag essay:
"It's absurd to divide people into good and bad. People are either charming or tedious." Rocky Horror Show is charming. And considering that most of the actors are students, it's surprisingly professional. Director Brewer is to be congratulated.
He's turned this trifle into a clinic — on camp.