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Dominion Stage Psycho Beach Party

By • Jun 7th, 2011 • Category: Reviews
Psycho Beach Party by Charles Busch
Dominion Stage
Gunston Arts Center, Arlington, VA
Through June 18th
1:30 with no intermission
$15
Reviewed June 4th, 2011

Remember Gidget — the 1957 surfer girl novel that spawned seven sequels? Followed by a 1959 movie with five sequels? And then a TV sitcom that lasted two seasons in the late ’80s? Gidget inspired countless ’60s and ’70s beach-bums-and-bikini-cuties teen movies.

OK, forget about Gidget for a second. Now cast your memory back to Alfred Hitchcock’s psychodrama Marnie — about a larcenous sociopath, a real anti-Gidget. And try to recall Faye Dunaway doing Joan Crawford in Mommy Dearest. Dunaway/Crawford personified the vicious, narcissistic BAD MOTHER.

And in the present context it wouldn’t hurt if you could remember Charles Busch’s 1980s campy Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, a fabulous, cheapo off-Broadway epic produced with scrupulous (and hilarious) drag queen bad taste.

With all that in mind, you may now proceed to Psycho Beach Party, Busch’s 1987 follow-up to Sodom. It helped establish Busch, a drag comic, as a not only an inspired actor but also as a marketable playwright. In 2000, Beach Party actually became a feature film.

Busch has been described as a “trash compacter.” He is certainly an unstoppable recycler. A teeming anthology of ridiculous Hollywood trivia, Psycho Beach Party has proved to be an irresistible challenge to small-budget theater companies eager for a big time opportunity to indulge in campy clowning and — along the way — to satirize the foolishness of pop ikons and homophobic bigotry.

Currently taking on the PBP challenge is Dominion Stage of Arlington. Dominion’s 10 cast members show varying degrees of inhibition and lack thereof when it comes to making canny fools of themselves.

Fully succeeding is Chris Gillespie who plays an overbearing mommy dearest type. With unwavering adherence to ludicrous seriousness, Gillespie explodes with lava-hot emotions ranging from smothering solicitousness to sadistic discipline. He reminded me a bit of Harvey Fierstein as the overwhelming wife and mother in Hairspray.

Ashley Elizabeth Bacon does indeed seem to be overwhelmed in her role as Chicklet (a deranged version of Gidget). On the night I saw PBP, Bacon was quiet. She spoke quickly, as if embarrassed by her goofy lines. When the time came for her to demonstrate Chicklet’s multiple personality disorder alter egos, she got loud, but she didn’t slow the let’s-get-through-this-embarrassing-crap-as-quickly- as-possible pace. The result was frustrating. Chicklet is, after all, the main focus of PBP. What is supposed to funny about her is her dogged plug-along earnestness. In any event, abashed, mumbling haste is never under any circumstances comical.

Chicklet is a bit of a tomboy. She wants to be Malibu Beach surfer. Haha! As a long board ace who can ride waves while standing on his head explains contemptuously, “Surfing is a man’s job.” This guy’s name is Star Cat (inspired by the Moon Doggie of Gidget fame). Soon enough Star Cat is in awe of Chicklet’s surfing agility. Then comes romance.

As Star Cat, Jeremy Austin speaks a bit more slowly and a bit louder than Bacon. But he too seems unwilling to give in to the allure all-out clowning.

More along the lines of Gillespie’s high style lowdown campy abandon is Ally Jenkins as Bettina Barnes, a Hollywood star (of sorts) who seeks refuge from the boredom and fatigue of glamour and publicity. So she pops up in Malibu — of all places.

When Chicklet is cured of her multiple personality disorder by a five-minute session of hypno-psychotherapy, Jenkins capably takes on duties as a bondage-and-discipline dominatrix. It seems that the untrammeled free-spirit alpha surfer Kanaka (played by Patrick M. Donehy) has a poorly suppressed lust for the trammeled unfree-spirit joys of correction. He submits eagerly to submission exercises that range from complying with humiliating commands to reveling in corporal punishment.

In the matter of honorably complying with the demands of undignified performance, Donehy falls midway between Bacon’s restraint as Gillespie’s flamboyance.

Finding themselves near Donehy on the restraint/abandonment comic acting continuum are Stephanie Dargan and Laura Fontaine playing bikini bimbos, Darius T. Epps and Luke Morris as macho surfers with a penchant for gay love and Rachel Ptak as a fanatical existentialist who has a crush on Chicklet.

The puzzle of how to put Malibu beach onto a smallish stage is neatly solved by Dominion scenic designer Jared Davis. A tiny house trailer, sand dunes and a curling six-foot wave are executed cartoon-style. The wave is fully operative. Cast members ride it along the base of a sky blue upstage wall. The wave is on wheels. Actors take turns pushing it and riding it.

Director’s Notes

Everyone has secrets. More importantly, everyone has a story. Our secrets are usually connected to our stories. Secrets come from many different places. Our history, our desires, our fears. We put on personas on a daily basis depending on the circumstances we come across. Personality is a funny thing. We sometimes express parts of ourselves that surprise others. More than often we end up surprising ourselves. When actors are asked why they enjoy performing, many say they like being able to be someone else for a short time, experience someone else’s story, escape who they are for a little while. Luckily Charles Busch wrote a play that is perfect for this task. We had a ton of fun exploring these characters, appreciating their quirks, and discovering their secrets. I hope that you have as much fun watching it as we did creating it. Welcome to Malibu Beach, 1962! Enjoy the Party!

Cast

  • Dee-Dee: Stephanie Dargan
  • Nicky: Luke Morris
  • Provoloney: Darius T. Epps
  • Star Cat: Jeremy Austin
  • Chicklet: Ashley Elizabeth Bacon
  • Kanaka: Patrick M. Doneghy
  • Berdine: Rachel Ptak
  • Marval Ann: Laura Fontaine
  • Mrs. Forrest: Chris Gillespie
  • Bettina Barnes: Ally Jenkins

Crew

  • Properties Design: Helen Bard-Sobola
  • Scenic and Paint Design: Jared Davis
  • Sound Design: Kevin DeMine
  • Director: Emily Ann Jablonski
  • Stage Combat choreographer: Steve Lada
  • Hair and Make-up Design: PJ Mitchell
  • Co-Producer, Master Carpenter, Special Effects: David M. Moretti
  • Costume Design: Camilla Morrison
  • Co-Producer, Assistant Director: Larissa Norris
  • Stage Manager: Christopher Guy Thorn
  • Lighting Design and Effects: Jim Vincent

Disclaimer: Dominion Stage provided two complimentary media tickets to ShowBizRadio for this review. DS also purchased advertising on the ShowBizRadio.net web site, which did not influence this review.

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lives in Arlington with his wife, daughter, son-in-law and two grandchildren. Before retiring last year at age 70, he was theater critic at the Seattle Post-Intelligencer for 27 years. Prior to that, he reviewed plays for the Philadelphia Bulletin, the Texas Observer and the Swarthmore College Phoenix. Non-reviewing journalistic jobs include writing for the Houston Chronicle, the San Juan (Puerto Rico) Star and El Mundo de San Juan. Think about it: most of the papers he worked for no longer exist. Maybe this internet gig has better longevity prospects.

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