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Don't dream it, See it

One needn't worry about running out of words to describe the enduring appeal of a bizarre 1975 sci-fi spoof called The Rocky Horror Picture Show.

Somebody in the audience will shout something at the right time to help.

Hot patootie and bless our souls, it's time (warp) again for the most demented triple feature that ever splattered the inside of a movie theater with rice and hot dogs, before the custodial police cracked down.

Only one film will be threaded through the Tampa Theatre projector tonight, but patrons still get three shows for the price of one.

On screen, the garish images of the most successful cult movie of all time _ a nonsensical mix of sex, anti-social slugs and rock 'n' roll _ will flicker.

In the seats, hundreds of disciples of mad scientist Dr. Frank N. Furter and his kinky entourage will shout a profane liturgy of smart-aleck puns and rude humor in response to the film soundtrack.

Somewhere in between, there's the stage-syncing talents of the troupe known as Larger Than Life III.

These are the fans who have taken the lesson taught by The Rocky Horror Picture Show _ "Don't dream it, be it" _ to the flamboyant edges of the lunatic fringe under the direction of Torch Locklear.

Some of Locklear's cast have impersonated Rocky Horror roles during midnight screenings at Tampa Bay theaters since 1980, when underground enthusiasm for an otherwise forgettable movie started bubbling to the surface.

One of them was Marguerite Andrews, who played sexy tap dancer Columbia during an eight-year midnight movie engagement at the former University Square Mall multiplex. "I have costumes older than some of the people in the cast," she says, joking.

Andrews now adopts the role of Dr. Furter's maniacal housekeeper, Magenta. Like her cast mates, she duplicates the costume of her character, mimics the body movements and leaves all of the talking, save for one piercing scream, to the actors and audience.

A spoilsport would say they're graduates of the Milli Vanilli School of Dramatic Arts. At least one cast member doesn't entirely disagree.

"When somebody in the audience can really be engrossed in your performance, in something that really is nothing more than air guitar to a movie, that's still impressive," said Brian Dare, who serves as Tampa Bay's chief ambassador to the worldwide Rocky Horror fan club and conventions.

Precision is the key, and that only comes through repeated viewings of The Rocky Horror Picture Show to pick up little touches, such as the shape of a pocket handkerchief or the proper steps to do the show-stopping Time Warp dance.

Dare's interpretation of "The Criminologist," who comments on the cinematic debauchery, was a prize winner in California two years ago when The Rocky Horror Picture Show celebrated its 20th anniversary. He has sharpened the routine since 1984, sometimes at two shows per weekend. Unlike many aficionados, Dare can't say exactly how many performances he has under his belt.

"When I first got into it, I didn't know it was fashionable to count," Dare said. "I've been going about 13 years now, so I have to assume that I'm well over 800 (shows)."

Kristie Andreotti, director of a Rocky Horror cast called Denton High (the movie's small-town location), which performs Saturdays at midnight at Eastlake Cinema in Tampa, said the synchronization of film and flesh is no easy task, even after hundreds of viewings.

"In some ways, it's harder than regular theater," she said. "Sometimes it's even harder to do it with the movie behind you because your movements have to be precise.

"There's no messing up allowed. You can't put your own style into it, you can't ad-lib or play off other people. You have to be precise and, if you're not, then your flaws show."

Stage-syncing hasn't avoided the age-old artistic debate between realism and impressionism. Internet newsgroups that provide a forum for Rocky Horror fans are loaded with messages that compare the merits of exact imitations such as Larger Than Life III and troupes that use the film as a launching pad for more original dramatics.

"Those are the two different approaches that crush heads once in a while," stage director Jay R. Ashworth said.

"There are other casts where you are to act, to be your character, figure out the character, and do what your character would do.

"Then, there are casts where the ideal is to exactly match what happens on the screen. That is Torch's directorial style; he wants it to look identical to the movie."

A recent visit to a Larger Than Life II rehearsal offered proof of how impeccable the cast's timing can be. The players weren't only Larger Than Life, they were larger than the movie; a print of the film wasn't available and couldn't loom behind them on the Tampa Theatre screen. Instead, the garish images flickered on a 19-inch television set hooked up to a laserdisc player.

Nobody minded that the TV screen was aimed away from the actors, toward the auditorium seats. Few performers looked at the images on the set.

"When you learn your part, you time it from listening to sounds in your head," said Scott Mullin, who has played Dr. Furter most weekends for 11 years. "The dialogue is easier, but when you have pauses, you listen to sounds in the background to know when to start talking again."

However, Andrews interjected: "When you get a chance to cheat, sure. I sometimes look out of the corner of my eye to check things, but you can't look all the time."

Oddly enough, Locklear said he can barely stand to look at the movie anymore.

"I started with it in 1989 when I was 17," he said. "That was the time when I left my room, where I had spent most of my childhood reading books and playing chess against myself. I went out to Rocky and got involved with all sorts of people.

"It's a decent movie, but I've seen it more than enough. I would never, ever watch this film again just to watch the film. It's the whole experience that's fun."