As a playwright, Charles Busch is probably best known for his breakout spoof Vampire Lesbians of Sodom, a touching buddy story inexplicably ignored by the Magik Theater’s programming for kids. (Sadly, the Magik also neglects the abundant parent-child bonding opportunities of Busch’s Die! Mommy! Die!) The playwright’s 1987 Psycho Beach Party — currently running in a fairly terrific production at the Cameo — is even more family-friendly, or shall I say, “family”-friendly: a campy, gay send-up of inane Frankie and Annette beach flicks (with a welcome nod towards Hitchcock). Busch eviscerates these spectacularly heteronormative films by skewering their implicit worldview: that America is (and ever shall be) populated by strapping straight guys and brainless bikini babes. Consider this a well-deserved queer (and evil) eye for the surfer guy.
I have to confess that my expectations for the evening were low: I’ve never understood the cult-like worship of the endlessly revived Rocky Horror Show — do we have to do the time-warp again? — and Beach Party’s 10.30 p.m. curtain seemed calculated to introduce a new Horror. I couldn’t have been more wrong: Director Rick Sanchez’s production is fresh, energetic, polished, and wickedly funny. The plot follows the psychosocial (and I do mean psychosocial) tribulations of poor, mousy Chicklet, Busch’s thinly veiled take on the heroine of such immortal fare as Gidget Goes Hawaiian (1961).
As Chicklet and her BFF Berdine pine for the local surf bums, a freak accident involving ominous stage lighting transforms mild-mannered Chicklet into her foxy alter-ego, “Anne Bowman”: vamp by day, dominatrix by night, and serious trouble 24/7. Chicklet aka Anne grows ever less stable, while friends and closeted homosexuals prepare for a blow-out luau (a lovely parody of the talent-show scene from Rodger and Hammerstein’s cornball South Pacific. You almost expect the cast to croon: “Some psychotic evening/ you may meet a stranger ... ”). The dramatic tension remains palpable throughout this narrative of understandably nightmarish intensity: What’s the ultimate source of Chicklet’s erratic behavior — and can she and her switchblade be stopped before it’s (gasp!) too late?
I’ll never tell — but you should see for yourself. In particular, you should catch Gregory Hinojosa’s amazing turn as Chicklet’s deranged mother, a drag performance for the ages. (Seriously, Hinojosa could take this role to any theater in Texas; too bad he’s missing a few performances later in the run.) Hinojosa not only captures drag’s hilarious aspects — over-the-top couture and mascara applied with a trowel — but, more importantly, its dark and subversive edginess. Jean Genet would be thrilled. When Hinojosa punishes Chicklet by flogging her with a jockstrap, the audience laughs nervously because we know, deep down, that flagellation-by-soiled-athletic-supporter is the perfect expression of the human condition. Walter Songer makes for a mercurial and — when necessary — scary Chicklet, in another drag role of high caliber and hem line.
Sanchez usually treads the boards as an actor, but he clearly has a fine eye for directing broad physical humor. A first-act surfboarding scene — complete with fuzzy stuffed sharks and a perfect storm of tap water — is silly and inspired. The second act sags a bit, but that’s partly Busch’s fault; after you whip your protagonist with underwear, it’s tough to maintain momentum. The Cameo’s inserted intermission doesn’t help. The large supporting cast mostly rises to the level of its leading “ladies.” Special kudos to Julie Snyder’s Sartre-spewing sidekick; Chris Berry’s Big Kahuna; Miguel Ochoa and Christopher J. Rodriguez’s ambiguously gay duo; and Paige Hansel and Kate Miller’s unambiguously heterosexual sexpots.
A word about ambience: Western drama may have had its origins in alcohol, but I’m all in favor of severing that connection. The visibly inebriated bloke to my left insisted on yammering away on his cell phone during the show, and by intermission I was ready to brain him with a tiki torch. (Disruptive audiences are always a peril of theater in a bar; the Cameo might want to invest in a bouncer.) And since the Cameo appears to have a smash on its hands, it should also consider adding performances at a more traditional hour. After an initial delay, opening night’s curtain fell at 1.15 a.m. (!) Even lesbian vampires are sleepy by then.
But these are quibbles, honest and truly. I swear on a stack of dirty jockstraps (which I have conveniently, if mysteriously, to hand) that if you’re a fan of campy theater, you’d be psycho not to go.
Subscribe now to get the latest news delivered right to your inbox.