If it’s October, that means it’s time again for “The Rocky Horror Show” at the Circa ’21 Speakeasy, 1818 3rd Ave., which opens Friday night.

While Covid-19 has thrown an unwelcome wrench in how theaters have reopened, the show is going on as faithfully as possible – including the same director, music director, choreographer, and some cast for three straight years.

Victoria House, second from left, and Kirsten Sindelar, second from right, in a “Rocky” production last year.

“We are thrilled to be presenting ‘Rocky Horror’ in The Speakeasy again this year,” said Brett Hitchcock, director of audience development, noting this is the fifth year the edgy venue next to Circa has produced it. “The show has become an annual event for so many people and we are excited to be able to do it again this year with everything going on in the country.

“We all need something to help us forget about everyday life and 2020 in general at least for a few hours,” he said. “It’s always fun to see people dressed up like their favorite characters singing along to every number in the show.”

Filled with outrageous humor, dynamic musical numbers, unconventional romance, ghoulish delights and plenty of audience participation, “Rocky Horror” is directed by longtime Circa ’21 veteran Brad Hauskins for the third straight year, along with music director Laura Hammes and choreographer Sunshine Ramsey.

A campy, raunchy tribute to B-grade sci-fi movies of the ’50s, the Tony-nominated show tells of young couple Brad and Janet and how their worlds are turned upside down when a flat tire causes them to spend the night in a creepy old castle. Add a mad scientist, an unlucky delivery boy, a hunky Frankenstein, a bunch of aliens and you have one of the most audacious and enjoyable musical comedies of all time, boasting such classic numbers as “Sweet Transvestite,” “Hot Patootie” and the legendary “Time Warp.”

The colorful cast includes returning veterans Doug Kutzli, Kirsten Sindelar, Victoria House, Tristan Tapscott and Nicholas Munson. Those joining “The Rocky Horror Show” cast for the first time are Micah Bernas, Cole Bizarri, Sydney Dexter, Joseph Lasher and Savannah Strandin.

“I felt like this year, it needed somebody who knew the show really well, the space,” Hauskins (head Bootlegger, who’s been on the performing wait staff since 1987) said this week. “I felt like it really needed to be taken care of this year. I wouldn’t want to subject somebody for the first time in this environment.”

Tristan Tapscott, Cole Bizarri

Among changes to the process, they’ve rehearsed in masks.

“It’s hard to watch people’s faces, how they’re reacting to each other,” Hauskins said. “It’s hard to hear them, vocally, what they’re doing. You have to kind of trust the talent is there.”

Just this past week, they’ve rehearsed without masks.

“It’s a surreal experience to see those masks come off,” Hauskins said. “We employ masks in the show as well. I like to see the show move out into the audience, and we can’t do that the way we did it before. I still have certain characters sit at tables right next to the stage, as if they’re part of the audience.

“When they come out to the audience, or enter and exit through the audience, they wear a mask,” he said. “Once they’re on stage, we talked about that at the very beginning. My view is, it’s not worth doing if we have to do it in masks. It’s just not.

“It’s not live theater if you can’t watch someone’s face, especially with Rocky Horror,” he said. “These characters are so broad and so fun to watch them react to each other. We said, let’s just decide – do we feel safe? Do we feel like we’re doing the right thing? And can we distance ourselves enough, especially from the audience?”

“When you sing or speak on stage, you can’t help but spray,” Hauskins said, noting the audience is farther back from the stage than a normal set-up, with spread out tables, and 50 people maximum (out of 130 typically).

Audience members are required to have masks on when they enter and exit, and state law requires they put their mask up whenever approached by a server.

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Circa audiences have been good about wearing masks, Hauskins said.

“You don’t always know when a waiter is coming up and you may have a mouthful of food,” he said. “They don’t always know when I approach them. They put their masks on because that’s the law. They don’t like it; we don’t like it, but we do it because we know, right now it’s the right thing to do.”

When directing, Hauskins adjusted some staging to have actors face out rather than face each other.

“There’s a couple of scenes that had a lot more physical contact and we definitely tried to limit that to almost none,” he said. “I feel like when you’re watching a show and you see a crowd of actors all breathing on each other and touching each other, I feel like you’re not in a safe place.”

Savannah Strandin, Doug Kutzli, Joseph Lasher

Hauskins also took two people out of the group “Time Warp” dance, so they could be farther apart. “It’s not the same show, obviously, but it’s as close as we’re gonna get. I think, a lot of happy accidents happened. I never thought of it that way before, but that’s kind of fun.”

“It’s the same show and I think it’s still an incredible experience to watch it,” he said.

The cast has been tested twice for Covid, and their temperatures are taken daily.

Columbia and Magenta, unmasked

Circa Bootlegger Kirsten Sindelar (a seven-year veteran of the performing wait staff) is back for the third year as Magenta, and Tori House also her third year as Columbia.

Magenta is the castle maid, and Columbia is a groupie and ex-lover of the transvestite Frank-N-Furter (Tristan Tapscott, reprising his 2018 Speakeasy role). The night that Brad and Janet arrive, Columbia welcomes them along with Riff Raff and Magenta. Columbia and Magenta help lead “The Time Warp” and “Touch-a, Touch-a, Touch Me.”

“I love it. I’ve always wanted to play Columbia since I was really little,” said House, who first saw the 1975 cult film classic, “The Rocky Horror Picture Show” (starring Tim Curry, Susan Sarandon and Barry Bostwick) when she was 8.

She was involved at a theater in Western Springs, Ill., where House would dance “Time Warp,” and she didn’t know where the song was from. Her parents showed her the movie and she loved seeing Columbia.

Micah Bernas, Victoria House, Savannah Strandin, Sydney Dexter, Joseph Lasher, Nicholas Munson, Kirsten Sindelar, Cole Bizarri

“I’m like, that is the coolest thing in the world. If I ever get to do this, I want to be that,” House said. She finally got to audition for the show in 2018 at the Speakeasy, “which was a dream come true,” she said.

“We’re complete opposites in that,” said Sindelar, a big Disney musicals fan, referring to House. “She’s a huge ‘Rocky Horror’ fan. The first year I was in it, I got roped into it. The Magenta they had originally, she backed out. I wasn’t sure about auditioning. It was like, ‘Rocky Horror,’ it’s really not me. It’s out of my comfort zone.”

Hauskins was talking in the lobby one night and he mentioned it, and Sindelar volunteered.

“He planned the whole thing, knowing I would volunteer,” she recalled.

“Having been the same character and the same director for three years, there’s definitely a comfort level,” House said. “I didn’t have to look over my lines too much. You get to know the character more. I went to go see ‘Rocky Horror’ this past weekend and there are these little random parts you and I have added in as Magenta and Columbia picking at each other, and they’re in the movie.”

Blue Grass Drive-In did a double feature of “Rocky Horror” and “Little Shop of Horrors” and House saw them with friends for her birthday.

“What’s really cool though, it’s the same show, but even with the same production team, you think it’s gonna be exactly the same, but it’s not,” Sindelar said. “Every year, we’ve had different people play certain parts.”

Tapscott (another Circa veteran actor) returns to play Frank and “it’s a completely different Frank than the one he did the first year,” House said. “The first year he did it, he tried to stay true to the Tim Curry Frank, and I think there’s a little more of just Tristan this year. It’s more true to him as Frank, rather than as Tim Curry being Frank. A lot of that has to do with not being able to go out into the audience.”

“Not being able to rely on that interaction has made everybody – not just Tristan – really bring more of the character on stage than normal,” she said.

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“It’ll be interesting,” House said of not physically going into the audience this time. “We’re used to sold-out, standing-room-only houses, and now it’s gonna be 50, so it’s gonna be a very different Rocky this year.”

“Also, we have new people playing different parts each year, but the masks is almost like introducing a new character,” Sindelar said. “That’s something we have to think about, which is cool. People who have been in it before, it’s something different to add on to what we’re already doing.”

Hauskins has told the cast every year, they’re not remounting the show but it’s brand new every year, House said.

“Like adding in different things each year, and this year it’s adding masks,” she said. “It’s not like shake it off and go on stage again. It’s every year developing stuff, and this year there’s been a lot of it.”

There will be a couple references to masks in the show, House said.

Brad Hauskins has worked as a Circa Bootlegger since 1987.

“Brad is not making Covid like a character in the show, but we’re not ignoring that it’s there,” she said. “It’s like the callbacks (from the audience), what’s happening in our modern world drifts into Rocky no matter what.”

“I feel like the Covid-based comments are going to come from the audience,” Sindelar said, noting there is lots of call and response in “Rocky Horror” as audiences comment or call out after specific lines.

It was hard rehearsing with masks initially, learning dances and breathing heavily, Sindelar said. “It gets better.”

“It’s hard to belt with a mask on,” House said. “And hearing your pitches and what everybody else is singing.”

Missing the stage

The last time the women had performed on stage (for a live audience) was “The Wedding Singer” for Sindelar, at Moline’s Spotlight Theatre in February, and “Bad Dates” for House, also in February at QC Theatre Workshop in Davenport.

They were supposed to be in “Tarzan” together this year at the Spotlight. Sindelar was not going to do “Rocky Horror,” because she was cast in four other shows – two at Spotlight, and two at the Black Box in Moline, through October. “Company” was going to conflict with “Rocky,” but the other theater musicals were canceled.

“When they say, do you want to do theater?, you don’t say no,” House said.

“It’s something,” Sindelar said.

“We joke it’s like high school, we’ve been in it so long,” House said of the cast. Doug Kutzli, back as the narrator is “like the super senior,” and they’re juniors. Actors playing Brad and Janet are the freshmen, since they’re always new.

“Even if there was no audience, getting to come back and see these people again, doing this show, it’s great,” House said.

Tristan Tapscott, Micah Bernas

This time, Brad is played by Joseph Lasher and Janet is Savannah Strandin. The ripped, blond Rocky is Cole Bizarri, a 20-year-old Black Hawk student who graduated from Sindelar’s alma mater, Sherrard High School.

“The last time I acted with Cole, it was my senior year of high school; we were doing ‘Wizard of Oz,’” the 2009 Sherrard grad said. “I was Glinda and he was my munchkin. That’s the last show we did together. And for our next show to be ‘Rocky Horror,’ where we’re Magenta and Rocky, that’s weird.”

Sindelar performed in the second “Music on the Marquee” at Circa in August, but not for one of the Speakeasy cabarets since July. Burlesque shows, drag shows, and a “Rapunzel” children’s show all have been done at the Speakeasy since reopening with reduced capacity, and mask requirements.

Sindelar is also in her third year dyeing her hair magenta (purple-red color), from her normal reddish-brown.

“I don’t have to emote a lot; my hair does it for me,” she said of “Rocky Horror.”

Eleven performances of are scheduled currently, with shows at 8 p.m. on Friday, Oct. 3 and 10, 7 p.m. and 11 p.m. on Friday and Saturday Oct. 23, 24, 30, 31 and a special 6 p.m. show on Sunday, Oct. 25.

Because of the musical’s adult language and mature subject matter, the earlier shows are for ages 18 and older, while patrons must be 21 or older to attend the 11 p.m. performances. The Speakeasy also requires all guests to wear a face mask in the theater and will be taking everyone’s temperature when they arrive. Anyone with a temperature 100.4 or above will not be allowed into the theater.

The late-night shows usually have a different, looser feel with audiences, who are ready to party.

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“You don’t go to ‘Rocky Horror’ if you’re sad. You go because you want to have a good time,” House said. “Definitely the late crowd has already had dinner and maybe a couple drinks, or are coming from somewhere else. The late shows definitely get a little more wild. There’s more swearing in the callbacks.”

She said people going out are usually good wearing masks.

“I was kind of worried with Circa, too, how they were going to handle it,” Sindelar said. “They’re like really nice about it.”

“Even with the limited capacity for Circa, I’m just glad to be back,” she said. “I’m happy to be here. I’m trying to get into more of a routine.”

Back to Bootlegging with Southern comedy

Hauskins and Sindelar are back Bootlegging in the main dinner theater, with the Southern comedy, “Savannah Sipping Society,” which opened Sept. 9.

Just four Bootleggers are working, alternating two per show.

“Each Bootlegger would generally take a section of 25 people and that’s basically what it is,” Hauskins said. “The pre-show is just, each of selected a song we thought was appropriate and fun for the theme of the show. And we have a duet, ‘Thank You for Being a Friend.’”

“It’s not a big song-and-dance spectacular,” he said, noting 11 Bootleggers would typically work for a full-house performance.

Brad Hauskins has worked as a Circa Bootlegger since 1987.

The 50-patron maximum for audience (out of a total capacity of 330-plus) is frustrating, he said.

“I wouldn’t mind it so much, thinking about it as a baby step, like a springboard onto something else,” Hauskins said. “I’m a little frustrated thinking about it being something that won’t change for months. I just don’t think that’s fair. We have the capability to safely distance people.

“If you walk in the theater and you see 50 people, you see entire chunks of that place that are not being utilized at all,” he said. “The people are sitting the same distance apart. It would change nothing as far as distancing. The 50-person thing, we’re good with it, but I don’t want to see it drag on indefinitely because I really feel like, in that space, we can employ the same distancing protocols, the same distancing procedures for 150 people, as we can for 50 people.”

The four actors on stage (including Bootlegger Sarah Hayes) are excited to be working, Hauskins said.

“I know, to a person, I’ve talked to each one individually – they’re all my friends – and they’re all just so excited to be back,” he said. “So are we. People I wait on; people in the theater, they look around and say, this is depressing. A few weeks ago, when we didn’t have everybody in here, it was depressing. Now, it feels like we’re slowly coming to life. That’s not depressing at all; that’s exciting.”

Four total Bootleggers are in “Rocky Horror.”

“We’re able to keep that group performing as we can,” Hauskins said. “If they’re in Rocky, that’s smaller, just a few shows a week.”

“That’s great – I just miss performing and working with them,” he said. “It’s just nice to see them involved in something at Circa, because they belong here.”

Brad Hauskins (in glasses) is the head Circa ’21 Bootlegger, pictured with the 2019 Bootleggers, including Laura Hammes in front of him.

“I tried to make this rehearsal schedule as efficient as possible, so I don’t have people together than any more time that I feel they absolutely need to,” he said. “It’s been a very quick process; they’ve had to do a lot of homework and just learning things quickly. They’ve been doing great.”

Circa audiences are also thrilled to be back, she said, noting the reception to a play rather than musical has been very warm, Sindelar said.

“People want desperately to be back,” she said. “They all seem happy when they leave. I wasn’t sure what the pre-show was going to be either, just the two of us? At first it was no pre-show, then maybe some kind of solo you want to do.”

“I’m just glad we got to do it,” she said. “That is part of the job. If we don’t have that, we’re just waitresses, you know?”

Bootlegging has been hard, though, Sindelar said.

“Savannah Sipping Society” features Sarah Hayes (left), Shelley Walljasper, Sherry Konjura, and Kim Kurtenbach.

“I’m so glad to be back, because doing nothing for six months really does something to you,” she said. “But the fact that we’re working as partners, for 50 people. We usually do for matinees, but for evenings, being in charge of drinks for 50 people an evening, is a lot different than being in charge of drinks for 50 in a matinee.

“It’s tough – they’re ordering bar drinks. You have to constantly keep the coffee, water, tea filled,” Sindelar said. “On the other hand, Brad’s doing all the dinner service, with new appetizers we’re doing too.”

“Savannah Sipping Society” – which runs through Nov. 7 – is a heartwarming comedy about four women, written by the team of Jones Hope Wooten, the authors of such previous Circa ’hits as “The Dixie Swim Club” and “Mama Won’t Fly.”

Tickets for “Rocky Horror” are $25 in advance and $30 day of show, available through the Circa ’21 ticket office at 1828 3rd Ave., Rock Island. For reservations, call 309-786-7733, ext. 2 or visit thecirca21speakeasy.com.

Because they are not allowed to mix parties at tables, they’re only accepting reservations for four or six people.  No outside props may be brought into the theater.

For Circa shows, visit www.circa21.com.

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Jonathan Turner has been covering the Quad-Cities arts scene for 25 years, first as a reporter with the Dispatch and Rock Island Argus, and then as a reporter with the Quad City Times. Jonathan is also an accomplished actor and musician who has been seen frequently on local theater stages, including the Bucktown Revue and Black Box Theatre.