Psycho Beach Party
★ ★ ★
1/26-29, • 8 p.m.; 5 p.m. Sun. matinee
Browncoat Pub and Theatre
111 Grace Street • $11-$15
Nothing makes a campy production more engaging than its lead role portrayed in drag. It’s been done time and again; “The Rocky Horror Show” and “Hedwig and the Angry Inch” come to mind. In Charles Busch’s “Pyscho Beach Party,” 15-year-old Chicklet, a goofy tomboy with a penchant for learning to surf, is performed by a male in female cloth—as is her creepy, sinister mother, Ms. Forrest. In Browncoat Pub and Theatre’s casting, they go a little further in the gender-bending by dressing psychiatry-student-turned-surfing-beach-bum Star Cat in drag, too. All in all, the casting alone is triple flamboyant. When adding Busch’s kooky dialogue and loose plot, along with loads of sexual props—whips, dildos and strangle ropes included—a night at the theater becomes an act of twisted, shrewd fantasy.
Written in the late ‘80s and turned into a movie in the early 2000s, “Psycho Beach Party” takes a Gidget-like character and adds a pyscho-thrilling multiple personality disorder (MPD). Combined with beach-culture idioms, the show delivers preposterous circumstances which entertain even if far-fetched. It’s silly, farcical and completely whacked out—just as Busch intended.
Chicklet wants to learn to surf, but the local yokels think she’s hopeless, while her mother forthrightly disapproves (an eerie if not hypnotic, slinky and sly portrayal by Ashley Grantham). Chicklet’s girlfriends, the sex-crazed Marvel Ann and bookworm nerd Berdine, hang out among the sands in hopes of running into the Great Kanaka, Yo-Yo, Provoloney and Star Cat.
Somewhere along the way, while Chicklet’s attempting to convince surfer extraordinaire Kanaka to teach her to ride the waves, another side lets loose of the teenager: Ann Bowman. The vixen’s desire is to be a dominatrix ruling planet Earth. As the story unfolds, we learn Chicklet exorcises the demons, so to speak, as she transforms into Tylene, a black checkout girl, a Jewish doctor named Rose Mayer and even a male model, Steve. But it’s Ann Bowman who gets Kanaka hot for the teenage dream—which lands them in many precarious situations, involving lots of masturbating and sexual scenarios.
Wes Brown as Chicklet is a complete hoot—overzealous and loudly colorful, from his ding-bat accent of an immature teen to the sex-kitten bass of Ann Bowman, the aggressor. Flat-chested and “built like a boy,” he does make the perfect teenage girl struggling with her sexuality. What really will grab the audience is Brown’s set of pipes—they’re massive. His role is loud, full of screeching and over-the-top acting, from jerking and flopping into each personality change to heavy-footed jumps and entrances as Chicklet. By the end of the first act, he had endured such a frenzy, the second act found him a bit more subdued; perhaps a balance is in there somewhere.
The best performance of the night, however, goes to the remarkable Chelsea Deaner as Berdine. I adored her so much I was trying to find room in my purse to sneak her home. Always a fan of the underdog, Deaner’s character is the most fleshed out. She’s nerdy, nasally (allergic to the beach), smart as a whip (she quotes Nietzsche at every turn) and loyal. Deaner has everything about Berdine in the bag: an infectious, awkward cackle, cute-as-a-button innocence and pride for being who she is, virgin or not! Her “Dear Diary” scenes stole the show every time, and her “Mission: Impossible” break-in still resonates in its cartoon-like villainous action.
Other standouts go to Lauren Doughten as Marvel Ann. Forgive me, but I’d like to find one man (or woman) not turned on by her smokin’ hotness. She owns the whole “when you got it, flaunt it” ideal that women dream of embodying. Her mental breakdown scene with Star Cat—planning out an entire future and watching its demise before even securing a promise ring—surely will resonate with many women and men. Although, Doughten’s audacious choreography to Trent Reznor’s “Closer” will likely leave an even more enticing impression.
Of the fellas, Star Cat—though technically a female, played by Jordan Mullaney—is the dim-witted surfer we all imagine of the stereotype. Mullaney has a star-gaze ease in every eye-roll and interaction with Marvel Ann, weirdly over-done handshake with Kakana and one unforgettable, awkward sex talk/“doing it” scene with Chicklet. Yet, it falls apart as he emerges as a psychiatrist in an oversized suit (think Tom Hanks in “Big”; actually, such an embellishment may have worked better), as he hypnotizes her in past-regression therapy.
Herein is where the play goes downhill. Turning this extravagant story into a “Dr. Phil” episode fades a lot of its color. Alas, it’s probably something I should take up with Busch—along with his inclusion of the character Bettina Barnes, Hollywood actress. Though well-played in a demure fashion by a perfectly high-pitched Quinn Kishpaugh, the role seems extraneous to an otherwise already packed story.
Director Richard Davis has updated the show’s original ‘60s setting to present day, so folks can expect a lot of pop-culture references. Some work (use of songs like “Teenage Dream”); others fall flat in cliché. Hence, the “Sanford and Son” phrase, “Elizabeth, I’m coming!” from Kanaka, a green-haired Matthew Brothers who could use more oomph in confidence to rein in believability as supreme King of the Waves. The “big” reveal of the homosexuality between Provoloney (a schmoozy Richard Fife) and Yo-Yo (an understated, barely audible Ben Henson) could sustain more plausibility, too, even though it will have the audience talking over another memorable make-out scene.
Overall, I’d liked to have seen more “Frankie & Annette” injected in the script over “TRL.” Mainly, subtle sexuality in some places, as known from those retro beach days, would have a stronger appeal in action against Busch’s overt dialogue. The contrast would have been a nice touch.
Still, “Psycho Beach Party” will keep folks talking (and groping) the whole night long. Prudes, stay home! Adult content and language pervades this production. It will also add much-needed spice to an otherwise boring night. Local theatre like this always does.