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Two fan fictions in Raleigh

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There are two kinds of people in the world: those who insist on dividing humanity into two groups, and those who don't. Conservative and liberal; Republican and Democrat; great taste, less filling—when it comes to theater criticism, we generally ignore such trifling differences and make a single recommendation for most shows.

But speculative and genre fiction—or horror, fantasy and sci-fi, as we once more descriptively called them—can be routinely counted on to split the body politic asunder (usually, with some combination of lap lasers, chainsaws or broadaxes). In the fangirl and fanboy, they awake an unholy, unreasoning bloodlust while frequently leaving their hapless partners snoozing away. Thus, two verdicts for two shows: one assessment for devotees of Rocky Horror and Harry Potter, the other for the rest of us.

Judging by the box office, true fans of The Rocky Horror Show have already bought their tickets and are catching this production, no matter what. It's hard to blame them. Though the stage version of Richard O'Brien's schlock fiction musical turns 40 next year (ouch!), and the film version still haunts the Rialto every Friday at midnight with longtime hosts the Low Down Cheap Little Punks (at lickitlips.com), the live version has been a regional rarity, with one Raleigh and Durham production apiece in recent years.

With Tim Curry's performance permanently etched into each fan's consciousness, it's commendable that actor James Ilsley and director Haskell Fitz-Simons have gone their own way in crafting the lead role here. Confident and decidedly high-energy in Jenny Mitchell's outrageous (and, at times, hilarious) costumes, Ilsley is his own sweet transvestite-cum-space alien as mad scientist Dr. Frank-N-Furter. Kaine Riggan and Sarah Winter impress as the geeky—but oh so corruptible—Brad and Janet in "Dammit Janet" and "Over at the Frankenstein Place." Brent Wilson and Sandi Sullivan dig in as the doctor's henchpeople, Riff Raff and Magenta, while bodybuilder Brian Fisher grins wolfishly in the title role, a newborn manchild in a sexual candy shop.

The second-act floor show was a musical, choreographic and designer's triumph, with vocalist Tyanna West trumping Ilsley's aces in the later verses of "Wild and Untamed Thing."

Worlds collided in the house on Saturday night as older, stern-faced audience members sat uneasily at times next to tattooed hipsters and younger fry who would clamber over rows and into the aisles for the big dance numbers. The division in the audience abashed most—but not all—of the show's traditional hecklers, whose perfunctory presence Evelyn McCauley took in stride as our sexy, sardonic Narrator.

The most earthbound of patrons would notice the thin high notes among a couple of the male performers and rearrangements that diverted them and others from unsupportable vocal heights. They'd also likely quibble over occasionally awkward blocking and a conspicuously anticlimactic ending.

Meanwhile the unconventional conventioneers will be making this rare interplanetary landing their own, singing along with every song, anticipating punch lines and fully welcoming the show into the house. Here's hoping they do.

There's more of a split decision when it comes to Mon Frere, a Greensboro improv comedy troupe mounting its guest production of HUFFLEPUFFED at Burning Coal Theatre's Murphey School Auditorium. With this much attention to the most niggling details, inhabitants of and regular visitors to the Potterverse will find a lot more to savor than any muggles in the room.

But a different split—by gender—may well divide even the true believers. There are some delicious send-ups here; clearly these young comedians have talent. But it's a boy's club, and a boy's show, which over-relies on the sex and drug jokes, salted with blue language, in sketches that follow two first-year students on their hapless journey through the seamy underbelly of "the real Hogwarts."

In this world, Harry Potter's a preening bully, Lord Voldemort's an egoistic buffoon, and students are selected for Hufflepuff House based on the lack of any life skills.

But a Law and Order takeoff that plays out throughout the show, based on Hermione Granger being raped, may well leave viewers in both worlds pretty cold. And the more than occasional preoccupation with gay sex might be something best explored in private, instead of in stagings like this one.

This article appeared in print with the headline "Drama of the ancient geeks."

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