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Rocky, horrid rivalry

Cult cliques act up

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Ryan Beahm considers himself a normal, straight male who just happens to feel most alive when he's flouncing around in racy women's underwear and garish makeup in front of a paying audience.

But then, he's hardly the only one. As a member of one of three groups that perform The Rocky Horror Picture Show to accompany screenings of the cult film in metro Atlanta each week, Leo Visentin is part of a community of exhibitionists who've donned the trademark fishnet hose and black corset so many times it seems perfectly natural.

Like others who have answered the movie's twisted siren call, Beahm, 30, and Visentin, 19, credit Rocky Horror with rescuing them from an outsider's existence by connecting them with a quirky peer group of social fringe-dwellers.

Although most devotees will admit that, judged purely as cinematic art, the object of their obsession stinks up the theater, they embrace the camaraderie that comes from staging a 100-minute, prop-heavy performance every week -- for free.

And, oh yes, these local teams of volunteer guerilla thespians have one more thing in common: they loathe each other.

Beahm, who leads the Lips Down on Dixie troupe at Atlanta's Plaza Theatre, claims the rival N9, to which he used to belong, has had trouble hanging on to a permanent venue "because they once burned down a theater."

Visentin, who usually acts out the title role of Rocky with N9 at north Cobb's Blackwell Star Theatre, is equally vitriolic, calling Beahm "back-stabbing."

Geez. It's a good thing these guys aren't into reenacting Civil War battles or they might be tempted to use live ammo. Still, enmity has so intensified that it's not unusual to hear players drop words like "harassment" and "sabotage" when one group discusses another.

To a Rocky Horror virgin, one group's performance might seem indistinguishable from another's. After all, in the 26 years since the movie was released, much of the routine has become as set as Tim Curry's makeup. At the screenings, crew members wield spotlights, throw toast, spray water and bellow audience participation lines, in accordance with time-honored Rocky Horror tradition.

Yet to the Rocky Horror aficionado, the rival groups in Atlanta are separated by a wide gulf in artistic philosophies. In other words, dammit, there's a wrong way and a right way to do Rocky Horror.

The perfectionist Lips Down on Dixie looks down on N9 -- named for the spermicide nonoxynol-9 -- as sloppy, undisciplined and unprofessional. "We don't let anyone perform drunk, but you can't say the same about the [N9] cast," says Dixie "pit crew" director John Leopard, a former N9er.

The improvisational N9 badmouths Dixie for being too uptight, predictable and, ultimately, boring. "It's not as much fun when you're pressuring people to be perfect," says N9 co-leader Chris O'Kelly, who recently oversaw a Pokémon-themed performance of Rocky Horror.

An occasional N9 player, Kim McFarland, says of the cross-town competition: "There are some people who are so anal retentive that they have to do everything exactly like in the movie. I mean, we're not doing Shakespeare here."

Every Friday, week in, week out, Leah Levin takes the spotlight as Dixie's red-headed, tap-dancing Columbia. A Rocky Horror-ette since she was 15, she made her impressively authentic gold lamé outfit by hand and prides herself on attention to details so minute they could escape detection by the most vigilant groupie.

"I dye my hair red and shave my eyebrows every week," she notes, adding as an aside that the N9 casts are "not that dedicated."

By contrast, N9's Columbia is, well, whoever O'Kelly and co-leader Andrew Yeager decide that week should play the character. The same goes for most of the other roles, as casts are chosen in much the same way a pick-up softball team is assembled.

"I don't think we've ever had the same cast lineup two weeks running," says Yeager, adding that casting is done usually without regard to gender -- Janet (Everybody now: "Slut!") at times is played by a tall, bearded man -- physical type or even seniority. That's what keeps things fresh for the cast and audience, he contends.

"N9 is more of a parody than a cast," he explains. "Our goal is to have fun with the crowd."

But Leopard insists N9's looser approach simply wastes everybody's time: "They want to have fun for themselves and aren't concerned about putting on a good show."

Leopard, a 49-year-old divorce attorney who is Dixie's eminence gris and main financial benefactor, left N9 after only a few months last year because he could no longer deal with the chaos. He took his large collection of Rocky Horror props -- as well as a grudge -- with him to the Plaza.

"At Blackwell, I was the only one setting up and cleaning up," he claims. "I paid for everything; they didn't contribute a dime."

Lest anyone imagine that the shared antipathy is merely the result of differences between a few prickly personalities, a third group -- Lambda Psi Phi -- attests to the bitter Rocky Horror rivalry.

Lambda co-founder Geena Phillips and Leopard first got involved with the now-dispersed Lipsync cast at the Northlake AMC a decade ago. N9 was then performing at the small Hilltop theater in Mableton, but members would take time out to drive to Tucker to heckle their cross-town rivals.

"At the time, N9 was pretty rude and there was antagonism between the two casts, but we've put that behind us," she says. N9 and Lambda, which has several former Lipsync members, now share the Blackwell on alternate weekends and even mount the occasional co-production.

But tensions still simmer. When she began working full-time at the theater, Phillips says she was forced to step down from Lambda because N9 members feared she might try to influence the theater owners to kick out their group.

"There were a lot of rumors going around that [co-founder] Laurie and I were trying to maneuver things," she explains.

After the Hilltop closed in 1999, Georgia was Rocky Horror-less for the first time in two decades, until the Blackwell announced last spring it would begin Saturday midnight screenings and N9 and Lambda hurriedly volunteered to perform.

Within weeks, Beahm launched Dixie at a theater a few minutes away in east Cobb, setting up a turf war that came to a head, he claims, in a drive-by incident in which rogue N9ers threw water on Dixie audience members in the theater parking lot.

"I don't think that actually happened," confides Leopard, who was a discontented N9 member at the time.

That story and some of the other allegations that have been flying for years between the groups are highly exaggerated, perhaps even fanciful, versions of events that may have only a tenuous link to reality, says N9's Yeager. Call them suburban legends.

As for the purported theater-burning, he says, it's a possible reference to a minor incident during an early-'80s, pre-N9 stint at the long-gone Perimeter Mall cinema. "Back when they used to allow us to use lighters during performances, someone may have thrown one and it didn't go out."

Visentin says such apocryphal tales are rampant. "I've heard a story about us throwing a toaster -- not toast, but an actual toaster -- and hitting someone in the head," he says. "Some people are full of hot air."

But some of the smashmouth rhetoric is taken seriously. A couple weeks ago, Leopard says, Beahm worried that someone from Blackwell had infiltrated their audience with plans to sabotage the show. "He gets a little paranoid sometimes."

Still, he compares the two casts to the Sharks and Jets from West Side Story: "One group doesn't set foot on the other's turf."

One exception to that rule is Rod Rombauer, 30, a dedicated Rocky Horror-phile who became an instant convert when he attended a show in 1989. "Mostly it was the girls running around in their underwear."

Rombauer, an infrequent performer who sometimes plays Brad (Everyone at once: "Asshole!"), favors accuracy in Rocky Horror re-enactments, but has friends among all three casts and spends his weekends shuttling between the Plaza and Blackwell to yell AP and shoot photos for the official cast websites.

The good-natured Rombauer says he's mystified that people who build their lives around a shared passion would devote so much of their energy to trying to knock each other down.

One insight recalls the old saw that social skills and interest in sci-fi and role-playing often exist in inverse proportion: "I've always been a bit of a nerd and, generally, people into Rocky have trouble fitting in with cliques."

But Leopard takes the rivalry in stride: "I never knew a Rocky cast that didn't have a problem with other casts."

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