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PSYCHO BEACH PARTY a campy challenge for Blank Canvas

Roy Berko

(Member, American Theatre Critics Association, Cleveland Critics Circle)

Who wrote THEODORA, SHE BITCH OF BYZANTIUM, TIMES SQUARE ANGEL, or VAMPIRE LESBIANS OF SODOM?  Don’t know?  You are not alone.  These, and more escapist romps with similar bizarre names, are the products of Charles Louis Busch, an American actor, playwright and female impersonator.  Many of his works, including PSYCHO BEACH PARTY, which is now in production at Blank Canvas Theatre, were written specifically as vehicles for Busch and his camp style of acting.

PSYCHO BEACH PARTY ran from July, 1987 to May, 1988 in an off-off Broadway theatre.  It developed a cult following which resulted in a 2000 comedy horror film, which, like the play, never developed a mainstream audience, but became, like THE ROCKY HORROR SHOW, a cult midnight movie flick.

To best understand the play, (if you have an IQ over 60 that should be no issue), the viewer should harken back to the days of ‘60s surfing flicks, throw in a little of the overly done melodramatic horror movies, and mix in a little psycho babble.  Yes, remember Frankie Avalon, Annette Funicello and Bobby Darren?  How about BEACH PARTY, MUSCLE BEACH PARTY, or HOW TO STUFF A WILD BIKINI?  They all centered on the happy days of being a beach bum, surrounded by beautiful girls, and having fun, fun, fun.

It also helps if names like Gidget, Jane Russell, Kim Novak, Bob Hope, and TV’s BONANZA are in your memory bank.   (If you’ve never heard of these names from the past, worry little, you’ll still get the drift).

PSYCHO BEACH PARTY, which is designed as a take-off on those films, with a little dark side, a little psychological intrigue, a little demonic intrigue, a cross dressing mom (of course, Brush had to write a role for his persona), and sand.  Oh by the way, this isn’t a musical, even though there is a cute musical shtick about the beach bum extravaganzas that director Pat Ciamacco throws in which will probably go right over the heads of most of the audience.

The plot line, (I use “plot” very loosely), centers on Chicklet (Sara Maria Hess), a teenage tomboy, who wants to be like the guys.  Unfortunately, besides being skinny and non-athletic, she has a tendency to break into multi-personalities when certain things happen to her.  (You don’t think I’m not going to reveal this deep story line intrigue do you?)  She becomes a black chick, an elderly radio talk show hostess, an accountant, a male model named Steve, and then there is Ann Bowman who is interested in world domination.  (Come on, could I make stuff like this up?)

Chicklet’s best friend, nerdy Berdine (Brittany Gaul) is into Schopenhauer, Nietzsche and, of course, “dear Jean-Paul.”  Then there is sometime friend, Marvel Ann (Elicia Bryant), whose purpose in life is to bed and wed a cute surfer dude, some one like Star Cat (Troy Bruchwaiski), a studly med school dropout who majored in psychiatry.  (This is a very important bit of information to remember, because his knowledge, acquired by two years of college psych classes, “solves” Chicklet’s problemThat is if you accept the unproven idea that dual personality is the direct result of a traumatic experience.  But, who worries about facts when fun is the object?)  Next in the lineup is  Chicklet’s mom, the role Busch wrote for himself (Jordan Cooper, in bad drag and a worse wig) who is a cross between Donna Reed, and Joan Crawford and Bette Davis in WHATEVER HAPPENED TO BABY JANE?.  This is one psychoed-out lady!

To add to the mix is Yo-Yo (Bill Reichert) and Provoloney (Bradley Michael Arner), two “prize macho studs” who find gay love underwater, which culminates in a prolonged passionate kiss (remember, this show opened before the age of  gay enlightenment, so that scene probably brought gasps of horror from the audience.  The local guys seemed to really enjoy playing tongue hockey). There’s the non-descript Nickey (Joey Dienes), Kanaka (Douglas Bailey) the local surfing-God, and Bettina Barnes (Jordan Renee Malin), a Hollywood class C star who is on the lam from her studio bosses (it’s worth going to the show just to see Bailey in he rmini-mini black bikini).

There’s lots of angst, running around, sexy innuendos, and lying around in the sand.  (Ciammacco and his crew brought 1150 pounds of sand up to the second floor theatre of the elevatorless building.  Before each show, stage manager/lighting/sound person, Erin Riffle, creates sand garden circles in the indoor beach).  And, yes, there are bare chests, bikinis and a great miniature surfing puppets gimmick (much like the flying scene in the classic parody spoof,  BULLSHOT CRUMMOND).

Of course, as has to happen in this kind of vintage hepcat slang, comic book, after school special, smut-light epic, all comes out well as our studly hero and cute nerdy heroine, go surfing off into the sunset for at least a fifteen-minute happily ever after life.

Camp acting takes a special set of skills.  This is not farce, nor comedy, nor melodrama.  For camp to work, there needs to be a high level of sincerity, with the ability to make the real look surreal while being over-the-top serious.  The young kids on stage try hard, they just don’t have the acting chops to pull off all the levels needed to make the show totally work.  It takes a Carol Burnett, Harvey Korman or Tim Conway to make this style succeed.  Unfortunately, there aren’t a lot of those folks around.  (Now, to be fair, I saw a dress rehearsal, and things could get much better as they respond to the audiences.)

CAPSULE JUDGMENT:  PSYCHO BEACH PARTY will make for fun viewing for those inclined to like theatre of the ridiculous and don’t want to gain anything from the thespian experience other than absurd silliness and get a lesson in the difficulty of bringing the camp style of performance to the stage.

Blank Canvas’s PSYCHO BEACH PARTY runs though March 9, 2013 in its west side theatre, 1305 West 78th Street, Suite 211, Cleveland.  Get directions to the theatre on the website.  (My GPS was of little help).  Once you arrive at the site, go around the first building to find the entrance and then follow the signs to the second floor acting space.  It’s an adventurous battle. For tickets and directions go to