If you think all you need to create laughs on stage is to combine a brainless beach blanket movie with a multiple personality psychodrama and then layer in some quasi-slasher movie shocks, you'd be absolutely right. At least when it comes to Psycho Beach Party by Charles Busch, now at Blank Canvas Theatre.
Busch, a noted drag queen and flamboyant actor in his own campy plays, has an outrageous
sense of humor that can wear thin. This is especially true if his clever words aren't performed
with precise timing and his over-the-top
characters become tedious.
None of those unfortunate situations occur here, thanks to the witty and well-modulated direction of Patrick Ciamacco, who has quickly become the local master of this comedic genre.
Eventually turned into a movie by the same name, PBP borrows freely from the 1960s Gidget flicks. The story revolves around a 16-year-old girl, Florence Forrest. Nicknamed Chicklet, she is achingly naïve and desperately wants to join the in-crowd of surfer guys, led by uber-stud Kanaka and the other surfer dudes.
But she and her nerdy pal Berdine can't quite match the sexy, go-for-the-crotch come-ons
of Marvel Ann (Elicia J. Bryant), queen of the sand. But Chicklet proves herself out on the waves (the one surfing scene is a hilarious low-budget movie send up, involving small
action figures riding a long blue artificial wave).
Meanwhile, somebody is sneaking around shaving people from head to toe, a fact that is freaking out the hirsute jocks ("Hey, the dude looked like a six-foot-tall penis!")
Back on the beach, Chicklet is sort of an outcast until she starts undergoing personality shifts. In one of these, she becomes the confident and snarling "Ann Bowman," a
dominatrix with a Bette Davis delivery. Soon, macho man Kanaka is swept under her spell, eager to wear a dog collar and sling-back heels as she beats and humiliates him.
Sound like fun yet? Well it is, thanks to a strong ensemble performance with some
outstanding highlights. As Chicklet, Sarah Maria Hess is perfect as the nervous, geeky girl. And while she doesn't quite manage a full transformation into the dark, gonad-shredding Ann Bowman, Hess keeps the laughs rolling—adding a few more random personas as the play progresses.
As her pal Berdine, Brittany Gaul channels some of the intensity of the Mary Katherine Gallagher character from Saturday Night Live (minus smelling the armpit-scented fingertips). And Doug Bailey struts manfully as Kanaka until he is domesticated, first by Chicklet/Ann Bowman and later by ultra hot B-movie diva Bettina Barnes (Jordan Renee Malin).
An amusing side story involves a surfer duo Provoloney (Bradley Michael Arner) and YoYo (Bill Reichert), who are not so ambiguously gay. And another thread deals with a college
dropout who has dubbed himself Star Cat (Troy Bruchwalski) and wants to garner his old man's respect by becoming a beach bum.But perhaps the best star-turn is presented by Jordan Cooper, who plays Chicklet's deranged mom, Mrs. Forrest, in drag. Chewing the scenery with undisguised relish, Cooper mashes up Bette and Joan and all sorts of other old time movie dames to sculpt this mom-from-hell.
It all culminates in a meltdown (quite literally, as Mom's makeup goes all Baby Jane, smearing and dripping of her face) as we learn the origin of Chicklet's multiple personalities.
This 90-minute farce features a stage full of sand, a limbo contest, and a reference to the ineffable pleasures of a heterosexual reach-around. But mostly, it features a young cast and director smart enough to know when to go nuts and when to underplay. And that's a formula for a laugh-till-you-gasp evening.