From the moment she bursts through the door in her red and black leather bustier, blue eye shadow and spider web fishnets as Dr. Frank N. Furter, Atlanta actress Kiona D. Reese rules the gender-bending Out Front Theatre production of “The Rocky Horror Show”currently playing on stage in West Midtown. The Birmingham-Southern College graduate has been busy on stage in her adoptive city this year, playing Chiffon in “Little Shop of Horrors” and as Susanna Walcott in the Suzi-nominated “The Crucible” both at Actor’s Express.
While she’s surrounded by a talented cast, including Joe Arnotti, Caty Bergmark (who offer their own innovative takes on Magenta and Riff-Raff respectively), Ally Duncan, Jacob Jones and Max Mattox, it’s Reese’s inventive interpretation of the show’s signature trans mad scientist that makes the show a must-see for “Rocky” fans and newbies alike. The self-described “sweet transvestite from Transsexual, Transylvania” role was originally created by Tim Curry for the original 1973 London stage production and reprised for the 1975 cult classic film and later played by Laverne Cox for the re-imagined 2016 Fox TV version.
But luckily for Atlanta audiences, you’ve never seen Frank N. Furter as portrayed by Reese in the Out Front production, kicking off the city’s LGBTQIA theatre’s second season and playing through Nov. 5. It’s a gutsy, highly sexualized, fierce and decidedly feminine interpretation, one that fuses “Rocky Horror” composer Richard O’Brien’s original rock score with Reese’s throaty Southern gospel roots. It’s like taking “The Rocky Horror Show” to Sunday services in Memphis.
Even now as Reese and the cast dive into a second weekend of performances, the actress says she’s still learning new things about the notorious Dr. Frank N. Furter. “I still haven’t quite wrapped my head around it!” concedes Reese. “When they told me I was playing Frank it was shocking. I went in to audition for a part in the ensemble. I’m really, really challenged by this role, especially as a woman playing it. I realize that people are going to really hate it or really love it. There’s no in between. For me, I just wanted to make Frank as relatable and real as possible.”
Reese credits director Matthew Busch and music director Nick Silvesti for helping her find her way into the role, breaking fresh ground along the way. On opening night as she belted the final few notes of Frank N. Furter’s swan song, “I’m Going Home” into the rafters, transforming it into a pew-rattling gospel number, Reese held her breath.
And then the wall of applause greeted her.
The reaction each night during the run has helped to validate Reese’s idea to reinvent her character’s finale. Says Reese: “I had been listening to a bunch of gospel music as I was learning the songs for the show and it just hit me. I remember saying to Nick, ‘I think this song is supposed to be a gospel number!’ Matthew had told me, ‘This is your last big number. It’s your show in that moment.’ Throughout the entire show, I’m singing a rock score. But I’m from Tennessee. I know there’s something about Southern rock and its roots in gospel that I wanted to explore. Those are my roots. The audience goes crazy for it. I’m really relieved because you’re changing an essential part of the show and so getting that positive reaction means a lot.”
Lending support to Reese is Max Mattox, who plays the Frankenstein’s monster boy toy title role, her old cast mate from Actor’s Express. Since the script basically calls for her to “Weinstein” Mattox throughout the musical, Reese says it’s helped that the two already share a bond: “When that connection is already there and you know you have a good scene partner, it’s easy to find the chemistry and the work is easy.”
As outlined by Matt Busch in the musical’s Director’s Note in the “Rocky Horror” program, Reese and the rest of the cast are aware of the show’s impact right now in the age of Trump. Writes Busch: “With national conversations regarding gender identity and sexual fluidity so prevalent, we decided to switch things up to ensure representation was front and center with this production.”
Says Reese: “Theater really can transform. I’ve never done a show where I feel that more. It’s ultimately why I took on the project. I wanted to be a part of something that reaches out to our community in this current political climate. Rocky does that. There are so many people in the world who don’t have a voice right now. Rocky gives them a voice. It’s a tremendous feeling for us to be a part of that each night.”
Above photos by Brian Wallenberg, courtesy of Out Front Theatre
The Out Front Theatre production of “The Rocky Horror Show” plays through Nov. 5, (including a midnight production Friday, Oct. 27) at 999 Brady Ave. NW Atlanta. For tickets and info: outfronttheatre.com.
Richard L. Eldredge is the founder and editor in chief of Eldredge ATL. As a reporter for the Atlanta Journal-Constitution and Atlanta magazine, he has covered Atlanta since 1990.