Transvestite drama and mental ward theatre

Before I went to see “The Rocky Horror Picture Show,” I had to come to a decision.  Do I see the show at nine—a perfectly reasonable time that is easy to make and would allow me a comfortable night of sleep?  Or do I see the show at midnight after all sorts of late-night celebrations have swept over campus, shattering sobriety and promoting promiscuity?

Only a week earlier, I had been in a similar predicament.  I was supposed to see the Fall Term play, “The Sweetest Swing in Baseball,” for my theatre class and had decided to see the late show on my general principle of procrastination.  Luckily, I ran into a responsible friend of mine who recruited me into seeing the early show with him.

Seeing “The Sweetest Swing” began as a comfortable experience. When I shuffled into the dim theater and drearily took my place among the whispering audience, I was absolutely prepared for what was looking to be a snug evening of theatre. “The Sweetest Swing,” however, was anything but a snug play.

Rebecca Gilman’s play is a sober examination of mental illness from the perspective of an artist dealing with the pressures of fame and success. The play begins with the main character’s attempted suicide, but quickly becomes more lighthearted when she moves into a mental hospital.  The main character, Dana, meets two quirky mental patients who convince her to fake multiple personality disorder so that she can stay in the hospital for longer than her insurance provides.  Dana pretends to be the baseball player Darryl Strawberry and discovers that life as a baseball player is a relaxing break from life as an artist.

The dialogue in “The Sweetest Swing” is insightfully witty and especially fantastic when Dana pretends to be Darryl, giving emotional insights into her life as an artist through the metaphor of baseball. Despite much witty banter, “The Sweetest Swing” is also an intensely emotional play.  Although at times the play could be somewhat melodramatic, there were moments when I felt overwhelmed by emotion.

But as the lights came up and the cast took their final bows, I realized that I felt strangely unfulfilled. In theatre, perfection is impossible—the mistakes the actors make cannot be undone and they only have one chance to make a scene good. This should give theatre a fluid and dynamic quality.  However, “The Sweetest Swing” lacked this dynamic and engaging energy. Much of the play felt stiff, and even though I was moved by the story, the play failed to truly entice me or keep me involved. In particular, the timidity of the monologues, which should have been much more energetic, was a glaring flaw in “The Sweetest Swing.”

Seeing “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” was a different experience altogether. After a serious internal debate, I decided to go to the midnight show. My reasoning was that after a night of partying, the crowd—and possibly the actors—would be more prone to indulge in the madness that is “Rocky Horror.”  I was right.

With the crowd bellowing obscenities and the cast of transvestites gesticulating suggestively in response, the show was wonderful in its madness and energy.  One highlight was a mock orgasm contest that ended with the winner pretending to pass out from sheer ecstasy.

Seeing “Rocky Horror” for the first time—a “virgin,” as first-timers are called—can be a marvelous experience. The whole show seems wonderfully scandalous and exciting. But seeing the show as a “masturbator,” or for a second time, left me with the same lack of fulfillment that I felt at the end of “The Sweetest Swing in Baseball.”

Going to “Rocky Horror” is almost like going to an improvisational comedy show. It’s a fluid experience, involving the audience almost as much as the cast. But the chaos of “Rocky Horror” is its strength as well as its weakness. “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” lacks the structure and artistry of a play like “The Sweetest Swing” and as such, it gets old fast. For instance, the lack of coordination of the shout-outs and a rowdy audience made the actual lines very difficult to discern.

Both “Rocky Horror” and “The Sweetest Swing” were entertaining shows. However, good entertainment is something very different from good art. With a show like “Rocky Horror,” an underground cult classic known for its peculiarities, its faults are forgivable. However, “The Sweetest Swing,” as it was not able to summon the kind of energy that really moves an audience, is doomed to only be a passable piece of art.

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