Its producers describe Psycho Beach Party as "Gidget meets Psycho on the way to Where The Boys Are." Add elements of The Three Faces of Eve, Marnie, and Mommie Dearest and you will still have only a partial list of the sources tapped by playwright Charles Busch in the creation of this extravagantly campy adult comedy, the opening show in Phoenix Little Theatre's Theatre One season.
Charles Busch began his career as an actor, spending ten years traveling the United States with his one-man show Alone With a Cast of Thousands. Claiming that no one was writing the roles that he thought he should be playing--namely divas and other grande dames--he started to write them himself. One of his early efforts, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom--a hit last year in Theatre One--was produced for and with some friends in a bar, the Limbo Lounge on Manhattan's Lower East Side.
Much like the late Charles Ludlum and his Ridiculous Theatrical Company, Busch began to turn out plays that incorporated female impersonators as essential components of their satire. With the production of Theodora: She-Bitch of Byzantium, the group began to draw a small, faithful and largely gay cult audience and Busch's Theatre-in-Limbo was born. Times Square Angel and Pardon My Inquisition followed, and, in 1988, Busch achieved even greater success when his The Lady in Question made it to Broadway.
But enough about that; let's get back to the beach. The scene is Malibu in the year 1962.
Chicklet (Linda Lieberman) is a pert and perky tomboy who just wants to be one of the guys. That's what she thinks anyway, since she doesn't seem to want to be one of the girls--they're all off on a "boy hunt," something that doesn't interest her at all.
But what makes Chicklet different from her friends is not her lack of aptitude for adolescent social life. Instead, we are shocked to learn that the girl's ponytailed head contains not one, but several personalities--all of them ruled by a tyrannical dominatrix named Ann. Quite possibly, it turns out, Ann is the person responsible for the grisly forced shaving of beach bunny Beverly Jo.
How could such a sweet innocent have such a fearfully fragmented mind? Well, to know that we have only to meet her mom. Mrs. Forrest--the apparent offspring of an unnatural assignation between Bette Davis and Joan Crawford--is a towering vision of motherhood gone bad. She comes steaming onto the scene in a taffeta shirtwaist and a painted-on mouth that looks to be the cruelest we've ever seen on a stage.
Originally titled Gidget Goes Psychotic, Psycho Beach Party's plot is, of course, completely ridiculous, but it's not predictable. Interesting turns and surprise characters pop up throughout. Granted, playwright Busch has stolen all of his material, but he's done it with style and a fine sense of irony. The work doesn't pretend to be any more than the campy confection it is, and the combination of beach party shenanigans with an undertow of terror gives the whole piece a nicely sharp edge.
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Though none of the female roles in Psycho Beach Party is expressly written to be played by cross-dressing men, director Tom Oldendick has cast men in three of the five women's parts. Besides Christopher Wynn in the role of Mrs. Forrest, Kirby Holt plays the toothy nerdette Berdine, Chicklet's true-blue friend, and Ronald K. Stevens is the statuesque beach goddess Marvel Ann.
In the play's original incarnation, Charles Busch essayed the role of Chicklet, played in this production by a woman. The intent is to leave the casting entirely open, placing talent ahead of gender. In fact, one wonders how it would have been had the role of Kanaka the surf king been played by a well-defined muscle girl instead of J.J. Giannantonio.
It would be fair to say that Psycho Beach Party is not for everyone. The play's language is raunchy to say the least, and the action is sometimes frankly sexual. However, it's also an uproariously funny send-up with enough twists to leave you wondering what you have just seen, but happy that you did. Psycho Beach Party continues through November 17 at Phoenix Little Theatre, 25 East Coronado. See THEATRE listing in Thrills for more information.