How to Snuff a Wild Wahini

Would that some of our more established theater companies could harness the energy bursting from the makeshift stage at Planet Earth Theatre these days. In the best "Hey, kids, let's put on a show!" tradition, a group of young amateurs has pooled its talents and its affection for campy old movies and mounted Psycho Beach Party, one of Charles Busch's better absurdities. The results are providing some late-night fun (the curtain doesn't go up until 10 p.m.) in one of the scarier stretches of downtown Phoenix.

Psycho Beach Party is typical Busch fare: It borrows wholesale from cheap-jack cinema and a long list of the playwright's other personal obsessions, creating a captivating excuse for a lot of funny sight gags and much ugly wig wearing. Busch, whose Vampire Lesbians of Sodom played off-Broadway for half a decade in the Eighties, has a genius for mining minutiae from already-obscure pop culture. Remember Hayley Mills as a naughty novitiate in the Sixties nuns-on-the-run musical The Trouble With Angels? Busch does, and he conjures that movie's subplot with one of its kooky characters, a pubescent sexpot named Marvel Ann. She and all the other characters here are wacky references to late-show entries we thought we'd forgotten.

Psycho Beach Party fuses two diverse film genres -- squeaky-clean beach party flicks and cheesy Hammer horror movies -- in one slick Sixties tribute. Equal parts Gidget and Strait Jacket, the story concerns Chicklet, a nerdy wanna-be surfer girl with a multiple-personality disorder. When she isn't morphing into oversexed Anne Bowman, Chicklet is a gawky teen who yearns to ride the waves. Her mother, a former prostitute who's obsessed with housecleaning (think Faye Dunaway as Joan Crawford in Mommie Dearest), comes unglued when Chicklet and her best friend Berdine hook up with a movie star, a nymphet and a heap of beach bums, with whom they sunbathe and solve, Nancy Drew-style, a mystery or two.

Mostly, though, they stand around reciting funny lines divined from movies this cast is far too young to have seen -- a fact occasionally apparent in its line readings (you have to know the context for remarks like "I am not a pepperoni!" before you can make them funny). For the most part, though, the actors turn in entertaining performances. Jessica Makinson makes the most of horny Marvel Ann, and Michelle Wilkey is suitably neurotic in the lead. As Bettina Barnes, the sexy B-movie queen hiding out from movie execs at the beach, Nina Miller recalls Judy Holliday in Born Yesterday, and every other bimbo starlet role filmed since. And Darby Winterhalter's Mrs. Forrest (a role that made a local star of actor Christopher Wynn a decade ago) is a riveting amalgam of Gloria Swanson, Ida Lupino and Vincent Price as Dr. Phibes.

Despite all this sturdy competition, it's Jourdan Green as nerdy Berdine who walks off with the show. In cat-eye glasses and a retainer, she quotes Sartre, revisits the dead-rat scene from Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?, and narrates the zany proceedings with tremendous style. Her adenoidal delivery makes Berdine's ditzy dialogue even funnier, and her antic acting elevates her character from supporting role to star turn. Even my theater companion, no fan of campy kitsch, admired Green's groovy performance.

The male cast is less effective, but Busch's shows are bomb-proof, written so intelligently that the worst possible casting can't destroy them. In fact, because so many of his characters are based on poorly executed movie turns, bad acting actually improves them. The boys in this story are there mostly to deliver surfer-dude clichés and to create the illusion of a crowded beach, a duty these fellows perform admirably.

I hope these kids will carry their talents onto other local stages or, better yet, make good on the rumor that they'll soon be taking over the only-sporadically active stage at Planet Earth. In the meantime, there's Psycho Beach Party, a boffo bikini-clad beach comedy that's worth staying up late for.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela