Psycho Beach Party | Stray Dog Theatre

straydog sqThe scene in which Star Cat explains sexual intercourse to Chicklet is worth the price of admission.

 

It’s 1962 in Malibu, and Chicklet Forrest really, really, really wants to learn to surf. She’s not one of the popular kids, but she hangs with the blonde, bodacious Marvel Ann (Suzanne Burke) and the intensely nerdy (and needy) Berdine (Anna Skidis), her longtime bestie. We meet the three on the beach, Marvel Ann rocking a corselet bikini, Berdine covered head to knees in a horizontal stripe dress that makes her look dumpy with a big glob of zinc oxide on her nose, and Chicklet in rompers. She hides behind a blanket to change into her bikini top, which the other two girls hole up. This is, of course, Charles Busch’s play, so the blanket is behind her and the audience sees her flat chest about which she is intensely concerned, naturally. Just as playwright Busch himself played Chicklet in the original 1987 Off-Broadway production, so Ben Watts takes up the drag princess role at Stray Dog and  makes it his own.

Though written in the late ’80s, Psycho Beach Party uses many of the same tropes, mainly to satirize a specific genre of movies as the newer The Divine Sister does. HotCity put on a hilarious version of psycho bannerSister just last December, so we’re getting the opportunity to see a lot of Busch. In Divine, religious movies in which the central characters are nuns are sent up, and here the “beach party” pictures with Frankie Avalon and Annette Funicello and a host of wholesome young folk frolicking on the beach in (sort of) skimpy clothing, singing songs and not having sex are the target. There’s only a little bit of singing in Psycho Beach, a number for a talent show (that’s right: “Hey, kids, let’s put on a show!”) which demonstrates that, in the “Buschverse,” no movie is safe from being thrown into the mix. If you’re a buff, it’s a lot of fun just figuring out what’s being referenced at any given time.

Chicklet has more problems than her lack of boobs and inability to find a surf coach, however. She also has multiple personalities, a deeply buried childhood trauma which has led to those alter egos, a mother who makes “Mommie Dearest” seem like Carol Brady (in the original, the drag actor playing her was done up as Joan Crawford, in fact), and worse still, her given name is Florence. What’s a little wannabe surfer girl to do? Mama (Steve Peirick) is a vision in a flowered dress, apron and pearls who subsists on martinis and tormenting Chicklet. Since Peirick is built like a halfback, his character is played in the Harvey Fierstein (Hairspray) tradition, while Watts plays Chicklet (so called for her tiny body, just as “Gidget” stood for “Girl Midget”) without irony, for the most part. Watts is, actually, a rather pretty girl and this adds to the illusion throughout; he is simply outstanding in a demanding role.

One day, B-movie star, Betina Barnes attracts the kids’ attention. It might be more accurate to grade her as a D, because all the films she’s made sound like they were written by Charles Busch. She has taken a beach house because she’s trying to get out of her contract with the studio she feels is exploiting her “charms” rather than her talent. Sarajane Alverson is in her element, vamping and camping in black and leopard print revealing outfits and high heels. (Full disclosure: I know Sarajane, and I think she’s probably wearing her own stuff.)

Betina put the “d” in diva. She becomes involved with the kids when she invites Berdine to be her secretary and two of the boys, Yo-Yo (Paul Edwards) and Provoloney (Jeff Ferree) to be her gardeners. Both guys look like they are right out of a surf movie—Yo-Yo even resembles Jim Hutton, and Provoloney is every sidekick to Frankie you’ve ever seen—but they are absorbed in the wholesome beach scene and denying their forbidden desires.

The Big Kahuna (er, Kanaka [Paul S. Cooper] in this show) shows little interest in Chicklet because she’s just a kid, but that’s when she reveals her first personality change triggered by the color red. Remember Alfred Hitchcock’s Marnie? Anyway, she is “spellbinding” (thanks again, Hitch) as the wordly dominatrix who will have her way with the more-than-willing Kanaka. She also plans on world domination somewhere down the line. Marvel Ann’s squeeze, Star Cat (Zach Wachter), completes the gang. He’s a college dropout with a little more upstairs than his pals, and it’s up to him to start figuring things out. The scene in which he explains sexual intercourse to Chicklet is worth the price of admission. But do not think this is all fun and games, because Berdine is a devotee of Satre, Schopenhauer, and Nietzsche. Of course, these interests remind us that she’s smart, but it also telegraphs the idea that both mindlessness and mindfulness taken to extremes are ridiculous. Or else, it’s just another joke. Who knows?

The set is, of course, a beach with a backdrop, a dock (that leads inexplicably to sand, not water), and a snack bar (sign on the side: “We Have Crabs”). It was designed by director Justin Been and executed by a whole bunch of people. The lights (Tyler Duenow) are important here to facilitate some of Chicklet’s personality changes, and the costumes are simple and appropriate (Alexandra Scibetta Quigley). The background music isn’t recognizable per se, but the surf sound is undeniable, and we’d be hard put not to hear the Beach Boys, Jan and Dean, and Dick Dale in Been’s design. The only problem on opening night is that scene changes were sometimes slow, and all they really require is for the actors to resume places. It seemed a bit awkward but will probably smooth out over the course of the run.

Psycho Beach Party became a movie in 2000 with girls playing the girl parts and adding a serial killer to the mix. The original psychotic crime as written by Busch was finding sleeping girls on the beach and shaving their heads and, um, lady parts. I like slashers as much as the next adult who thinks teenagers basically deserve what they get, but random scalpings are funnier than chopped up bodies. Well, mostly.

Considering that Pierick, Alverson and Watts had leads in the epic Angels in America in 2012, Wachter and Skidis were in Spring Awakening earlier this season, and the rest of the actors have some serious background credits also, this romp allows them to show their versatility. Been has directed his young cast to earnest performances that are just as bad as the ones he’s sending up, and that’s very good. Psycho Beach Party isn’t for everyone, but if it’s your kind of humor—and it’s most definitely mine—I can’t think of a better place to be on a winter weekend in St. Louis. Surf’s up! | Andrea Braun

Psycho Beach Party runs through Feb. 23, 2013, at Stray Dog Theater.

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