Dudes look like ladies (barely) in Rarely Done’s wild farce Psycho Beach Party
By James MacKillop
First came Theater of the Absurd. Then came Ridiculous Theater. The second one is American and often mistaken for farce, but don’t let that fool you. Both traditions present ordinary bourgeois life as crass nonsense. While absurdism tends to focus on existential angst, and can be grim, Ridiculous Theater is a hoot that takes aim at the treacly optimism of popular culture as seen in now-discarded Hollywood programmers. Thus, Charles Busch’s Psycho Beach Party is set in 1962, the era of Gidget movies and bikini-and-sand romances, before the Kennedy assassination and the arrival of The Beatles. But with the ridicule and teasing, Busch’s comedy comes with a smile. There’s still affection for what he finds ridiculous. It’s the Rarely Done Productions’ season finale at Jazz Central, 441 E. Washington St.
Charles Busch, born in 1954 and best known in these parts for Lesbian Vampires of Sodom, is often confused with the older Charles Ludlam (1943-1987) of The Mystery of Irma Vep. Both Charleses were adept at drag roles, with Busch appearing in the original stage version of Psycho Beach Party (1986), where most female roles were played by real women. Women also appear in the little-seen film version (2000), in which a then-unknown Amy Adams loses her bikini bottom. The decision to have all but one of the female roles played by men was director Dan Tursi’s choice, apparently to take advantage of Rarely Done’s company talent, some veteran, some new. And it leads to a gag loss of a bikini top, more about which later.
A great distinction between Ridiculous Theater and generic farce is the continual nudge to the ribs of knowing allusions. Nothing mindless here. Most of Psycho Beach Party feels like a Kaplan crash course to prepare the audience for pop culture questions on Jeopardy! or Who Wants to be a Millionaire? For starters you’d better know Bernard Herrmann’s music scores for at least three Alfred Hitchcock movies or the works of schlock producer Albert Zugsmith. Fast as they come, though, they can’t lighten the leaden overexposition that slows the first act, making Psycho Beach Party a lesser laugh riot than some of Rarely Done’s recent June ribaldry, like Debbie Does Dallas: The Musical (2007) or Scream Queens (2010).
The action begins with beefcake on the beach at Malibu. Four guys with flat abs in swim trunks are making the scene, scouting the girls and lusting to hang 10. They are two blonds, Yo-Yo (Mark Ameigh) and Nicky (Gabe Mirizio), tattoo-covered Provoloney (Junior Morse) and the most talkative, Star Cat (Peter Irwin). Setting the theme of aspiration, Star Cat says he’d like to drop out of college and become a surf bum.
The school vs. surfing theme comes on harder when the girls enter, the ultra-feminine Marvel Ann (Jimmy Wachter, played by Amy Adams in the movie), the bookish Berdine (David Minikheim) and thin-limbed Chicklet (Christopher James). Berdine’s idea of amusement is reading Nausea by Jean-Paul Sartre (pronounced “sar-tray’), which puts her at odds with fun-loving Chicklet, whose real name is Florence. “Chicklet,” of course, is as close you can get to “Gidget” without copyright infringement. While Berdine has her eyes on the boys, Chicklet lusts after only one, the leader of the surfer dudes, the hunkish Big Kanaka (Derek Potacki, a Viggo Mortensen look-alike). Alas, Chicklet is not sure she has the allure to attract a boy, and in one of the first act’s few gags, pulls down her bikini halter and moans, “Look at me! I’m as flat as a boy.”
More will trouble this idyll than sand and wind. When Chicklet hears a spoken signal (we’re not sure at first which word it is), she undergoes a sudden transmogrification and begins to groan in a deep, mannish contralto, claiming she is really someone named Ann Bowman who’s dreaming of world domination. Then in a riff on Sybil and The Three Faces of Eve, Chicklet sprouts more personalities, one with an African-American accent and another, a guy named Steve. No matter how many faces are coming out of Chicklet, they all spell murderous trouble that Chicklet herself cannot control.
Director Tursi’s interpretation puts heavy responsibility on actor Christopher James, who’s had mostly smaller roles previously in shows for Rarely Done and Appleseed Productions. Busch took the role himself in the initial run, signaling that it can be rewarding rather than just demanding. Skinny rather than thin, James does not compete well in cross-dressing deportment, with a sexy walk or alluring gestures, the kinds of things that Jimmy Wachter has perfected through constant practice. That’s the point: Chicklet is not just a “tomboy” but also something of a klutz. James’ gift to the role is his rapidly altering vocal projection, sounding like different characters, and then shifting his body set to suit.
The second act brings much more fun with lots of wild action that does not always advance the plot, as when the beach kids suddenly decide to do the “Limbo Rock,” tilting back to go under the bar. Bouncing in like beach balls are items like the erotic wrestling match between Yo-Yo and Provoloney and the hilarious Siamese twin dance in which Berdine and Marvel Ann are joined at the hip.
Two new characters speed the pace in the second act, starting with Chicklet’s imposing mother, Mrs. Forrest (Jimmy Curtin), whose heavy makeup, red wig and haughty manner suggests a deranged mash-up of Joan Crawford and Katharine Hepburn. Unlike either of those divas, Mrs. Forrest is anti-male and thunders against the dangers of the testosterone gender by flailing an empty jock-strap at the chastened. Such a blunderbuss is headed for a fall, though, and when she’s wriggling on the floor we’re given views of her pantyhose and girdle.
Against plausibility, we’re also introduced to a black-clad over-the-hill horror film actress named Bettina Barnes (Marguerite Fulton-Newton), who’s greeted with the breath-stopping compliment, “You have the most beautiful eye-lashes I’ve ever seen on a mammal.” Saltier-tongued than the others, Bettina speaks the most roguish dialogue of any character. Dismissing the worthlessness of her past movies she snarls, “Lassie could have farted out a better script.”
Although widely produced over the past two decades, Psycho Beach Party is not so much a stage play as a scenario that allows Rarely Done performers to strut their stuff. And the best of them are Christopher James, Jimmy Wachter, Jimmy Curtin, Peter Irwin, David Minikheim and Derek Potacki. Applause also for production designer C.J. Young, whose leering poster sets a nasty tone.
This production runs through June 18. See Times Table for information.