Zoë Ravenwood, Sebastian Crane, and Max Jackson. Photo: Nile Scott Studios.

Co-Director Jo Michael Rezes on 'Rocky Horror Show': It's an 'Intergenerational Queer and Trans Love Fest'

Kilian Melloy READ TIME: 8 MIN.

"There's such a recognizable pressure in our daily lives to perform our gender," Jo Michael Rezes (they/she) asks in their TEDx Talk on "Gender Rehearsivity," which they begin with a one-person performance of a scene between Cecily and Algernon, characters from Oscar Wilde's "The Importance of Being Ernest." "Quite frankly, failure to pass as a man or a woman effectively is still dangerous for transgender and gender-nonconforming people."

An actor, director, and theater educator based in the greater Boston area, Rezes plays both Algernon and Celia in the opening moments of their TEDx talk, with the use of a costume that's part suit, part gown, a "half and half hyper-binary costume," as Rezes describes it. They are playing "a man and a woman," they note, "when I'm actually neither."

Rezes knows a thing or two about gender expression, gender identity, and how those things relate to camp. It's a background she brings to the job of co-directing, with Lee Mikeksa Gardner, the current production of "The Rocky Horror Show" at the Central Square Theater, which continues through November 26.

Jo Michael Rezes
Source: https://www.jmrezes.com/about

There have been countless iterations of the stage musical, which premiered in London in 1973 before migrating to Los Angeles in 1974 and being made into a film starring Tim Curry in 1975. A parable from the peak of the sexual liberation about what happens when a couple of squares, Brad and Janet from heartland America, bumble into a (literally) alien scene of diverse genders and sexualities, the musical frames its questions about restrictive social norms (and escaping them) with a science fiction story about a mad scientist, Dr. Frank-N-Furter, and his chaotic coterie, all hailing from the planet Transsexual. Dr. Frank-N-Furter's latest scheme? "In just seven days," he purrs, done up in fishnets, corset, elbow-length gloves, and high heels, "I can make you a man!" He means it literally: His creation is a blond muscle god. Not incidentally, the good doctor also creates something new from Brad and Janet, transforming them from trussed-up and repressed into fellow revelers.

"The Rocky Horror Picture Show," as the film is titled, has long been a cult classic, with viewers talking back to the screen and applauding "shadow casts," fans who dress up as the characters and play out the movie's scenes along with the action on the screen. Then there are the various stage versions, such as the 2011 cabaret mounted by Ryan Landry and the Gold Dust Orphans the American Repertory Theatre's (late, lamented) Club Oberon in Harvard Square, and, more recently, the phenomenon of "The Rocky Horror Drag Show." The film was even remade for television as a live broadcast event.

Rezes and Gardner have something slightly different in mind.

"This production is attempting to get back to the roots of the radical nature of the 1973 show by giving it a 2023, 50-year anniversary twist by having five trans and non-binary actors in major roles in the production," Rezes tells EDGE, adding that they are "trying to bring it back to the root of what the show was originally, as transgressive and radical and shocking."

"The Rocky Horror Show" can't help having an underlying political quality, perhaps more so now with transgender and other gender non-conforming people under growing attack, along with the theatrical tradition of drag. But Rezes isn't necessarily coming from a place of satire as much as camp – which Rezes, citing Susan Sontag, defines for EDGE as an "aesthetic endeavor of a group of people on the fringes or in the margins recycling cultural ephemera, pieces of things that hurt them, to make something fun and silly." In this case, specifically, "taking gender norms and recycling them and putting that glittering and glam on top of them, bedazzling them if you will, and then putting them back out for people to take in."

It sounds like a show!

EDGE: Is this show something you brought to Central Square Theater or did they come to you thinking you'd be a great pick to direct the production?

Jo Michael Rezes: I assistant directed on the very gender-bendy "Cloud Nine" in 2019 at Central Square Theater. I worked with Lee Mikeska Gardner on that, and it was all the way back then that Lee was considering doing the "Rocky Horror Show" because she has her own personal love for the show. I had been researching "The Rocky Horror Show" for my master's thesis, and I was performing as Frank-N-Furter at the exact same time I was working on "Cloud Nine," so I was enmeshed in the show. Through COVID and all of quarantine years and everything, I kept in touch with Lee, and it just happened to be the right time, right place to bring "The Rocky Horror Show" to the CST.

EDGE: That's the second time that you've played two roles at once with one of them being "Rocky Horror."

Jo Michael Rezes: I was playing Brad as an undergrad while I was playing Charlotta Ivanova, which was just a radical awakening for myself. "The Rocky Horror Show" and all of the gender play within it, and also my work playing a woman on stage for the first time – there was there was a lot of awakenings happening at that time. Then, in 2019, getting to play Frank-N-Furter almost as the true evolution of Brad to Frank-N-Furter, which I think is at the root of the story itself. Our process on "The Rocky Horror Show" has been an intergenerational queer and trans love fest, where we've been having in-depth conversations on deep questions about gender and queerness in a space that's supporting us and our artistry. It's been really, really wonderful.

EDGE: Do you find that you're bringing insights you got as an actor in productions of "The Rocky Horror Show" into what you're doing as a director?

Jo Michael Rezes: Yes, in so many ways. It is very actor driven, actor forward. Having worked on it in 2019 and discovering that there were plotlines of these characters and the relationships that go much deeper than the text itself, it was very, very exciting to spend three days of table work discussing the nuances. I don't think I would be able to put up this production as a director if I hadn't acted in the show twice already.

EDGE: "Rocky Horror" in any form seems like the idea play for this Halloween season, especially since we've seen so much insane legislative aggression aimed at transgender people and drag.

Jo Michael Rezes: Yes, and I think something we were wanting to put on stage was a lot of gender play, and gender euphoria, and just joy. We wanted to show the explicit joy of playing with gender on stage, and how there is no harm to it. Frank-N-Furter says it at the end of the play: "Don't dream it, be it." This message has been sent out into the world since the '70s, and we're realizing with audience feedback that maybe that message hasn't been taken to heart yet. It's still something we have to remind ourselves of every single day. So, just filling this space with people living their authentic lives on stage and playing with these characters has been wonderful to see, despite everything going on in the world right now.

EDGE: I watched your TED talk on "gender performance." Can you say a little about what gender performance means for all of us, not just people in the theater world?

Jo Michael Rezes: I think gender performance and camp have always gone hand in hand. There's an escapism to playing with gender. We see that with drag, removing some of the limiting factors of gender on our everyday lives by playing with it riffing on it, flipping it, true gender bending. And I think that is also part of that recycling action of camp of recycling things that might hurt us or oppress us, putting them on our body and trying them on and saying, "No, I am going to perform this level of masculinity that you don't want me to perform," or, "I'm going to put on this entire outfit and this face of makeup that makes me feel powerful in femininity, but you don't want me to do that."

I encourage everyone to riff on gender expression and gender aesthetics in everyday life, just to experience a little bit of freedom from the patterns and pathways that are set out before us. If everyone could be as open and expressive as the floor show of our current production of "The Rocky Horror Show" and living in that gender euphoria every day, I think we would be living in a better world.

"The Rocky Horror Show" continues at Central Square Theater through Nov. 26.

by Kilian Melloy , EDGE Staff Reporter

Kilian Melloy serves as EDGE Media Network's Associate Arts Editor and Staff Contributor. His professional memberships include the National Lesbian & Gay Journalists Association, the Boston Online Film Critics Association, The Gay and Lesbian Entertainment Critics Association, and the Boston Theater Critics Association's Elliot Norton Awards Committee.

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