If you’re looking for an escape, there’s a thoroughly entertaining performance of Charles Busch’s perennially popular parody of 1960s beach-blanket cinema that’s just what you need. Busch’s script takes every stock role from the genre, from the sexually aggressive beach bunny (Marvel Ann) to the burnout surfer guru (Kanaka), and gently deconstructs most of them. The bikini-chasing bums, Yo-Yo and Provoloney, ultimately prove more interested in each other than the local single ladies; the prudish mother, Mrs. Forrest, has no shortage of scandal in her past; and the dizzy movie star, Bettina Barnes, has plans to study with Lee Strasberg and promote socially relevant films. At the center of the plot is Chicklet, the wide-eyed ingénue with dreams of being a champion surfer, whose fragmented psyche, a textbook case of Dissociative Identity Disorder, is both a showcase for young impulses and the source of the play’s conflict.
Psycho Beach Party is farce through and through, and a far more lighthearted farce than its title might suggest. If it has a purpose beyond laughter, it is to normalize diverse sexuality through high-camp silliness. Chicklet’s personalities might threaten violence, but never do more damage during the action of the play than to humiliate a would-be submissive or cut away patches of her victims’ hair. Nearly all the jokes find their source in innuendo or outright bawdiness, and despite tales of a stalker cutting up kids on the beach and loud screams of terror, the menu of stoner talk, ironic puns, and dirty talk make it far more beach fun than horror.
Stillpointe Theatre’s production is directed with shameless enthusiasm for the sometimes obnoxiously fast-paced and exaggerated jib of the move genre by Courtney Proctor; her cast is perfectly matched to their roles. Unafraid to turn up the volume on their character’s stereotyped qualities, we delight in Jess Rivera’s (Marvel Ann) coquettishness, in John Benoit’s (Kanaka) spacey-ness, in June Keating’s (Berdine, the best friend) sweetness, and in Bevin Keefer’s (Bettina) pretentiousness. At the same time, each actor finds a unique human side to their roles that fuels Busch’s deconstructive spin. David Brasington as Yo-Yo struggles with his awkward shyness and his passion for beauty that previews his eventual coming out. Andy Fleming, as Star Cat, portrays a thoughtfulness that suggests his intelligence and psychiatric inclinations. Of course, the lion’s share of the work falls to Christine Demuth as Chicklet. She transitions with near flawless precision from the frustrated surfer talent trying to break into a man’s industry, to the dominatrix who plans to rule over more than her sex slaves, to the waitress who plans to break out of her obscurity, to the intellectual queen bee who matches wits with Star Cat.
The material is truly a multi-layered challenge. Some lines provide a mouthpiece for Busch’s acerbic wit (Chicklet cutting down Star Cat’s complaints about the pressures of being admired by referencing starving people in other countries), others are simply dirty for dirty’s sake (Star Cat’s graphic description of a particular fetish that he and Marvel Ann enjoy after the sunset cut away from their love scenes), and some require a sudden shift of a character’s personality (Kanaka’s “Yes, Mistress Ann” and accompanied submissive pose with a cry of “Cowabunga.”)
While some of the wit gets lost in the pacing and the opportunities for direct audience connection are underexplored – especially in a theater where the audience is within touching distance for most of the show – the cast’s energy is unapologetically intense, their blocking and choreography are physically bold, and their delivery is passionate and multi-layered.
The production design is effective in its minimalism. The set by Ryan Haase makes clever use of limited space. He dresses the narrow aisle of the Mercury Theater with sand-yellow faux wood flooring, the lobby side with a Dick’s Surf Shop banner, and the backstage side with two discovery spaces for the Forrest home and a surfing cut scene. Lillie Kahknonen and Todd Mion (lighting and sound, respectively) provide the right touches of sun and surf, with time-period music and kitchy effects. Costumes by Nick Staigerwald are appropriately scandalous; the male actors especially are featured in the most revealing beachwear of the 1960s market.
With enthusiastic performances, naughty material, and precise design, there’s much to recommend in this rendition of Charles Busch’s farce. This reviewer’s advice? Embrace the sexy lunacy, the nostalgic kitch, and the subtle social commentary that awaits audiences at the Mercury Theatre!
Running Time: Approximately 90 minutes, with no intermission.
Psycho Beach Party plays through June 16, 2017 at Stillpointe Theatre performing at The Mercury Theatre – 1823 North Charles Street, in Baltimore, MD. For tickets, buy them at the door, or purchase them online.