I love going to Stray Dog Theatre. I love the space, I love that Artistic Director Gary Bell greets everyone by name and with a warm embrace. I think Production Manager Jay Hall is one of the most organized, efficient, positive and kind-hearted people in the St Louis theater scene. Even the volunteers seem genuinely happy to pour you a wet one at the Bark Bar and serve the delicious baked goods (still made by Gary’s sister, Jennifer.) So I was very happy to see the opening night of their latest offering, Psycho Beach Party.
Charles Busch’s Psycho Beach Party holds a special place in my heart as it was the inaugural show for HotHouse Theatre in September 1997, with yours truly playing the role of Berdine, the nerdy best friend. The play is a magical mix of Gidget and 60’s beach blanket movies and Hitchcock’s psychological thrillers like Spellbound and Marnie. Busch revels in gender-bending and cross-dressing. Director Justin Been keeps the show current by stressing our “inner yearning to be fully realized individuals.” This is a play where the men are men… and women… and girls.
The cast is young and fresh and the boys are pretty. They’re surfers, dig? So there’s lots of abs and biceps and golden-brown flesh, although Paul S. Cooper’s Kanaka is a little more “sparkly vampire” than bronzed beach bum, no matter, these boys are hot. And there’s sex, did I mention sex? Yeah, lots of sex and all the confusion that comes with youth and sex and cross-dressing. It’s always fun to see which character a director will choose to cross-dress, besides Chicklet. In our version it was Bettina Barnes, in another, a man played Marvel Ann and in this production Stephen Peirick plays Mrs. Forrest in demented, Joan Crawford style.
Ben Watts’ Chicklet is a wannabe surfer girl with multiple personalities, and he does a great job vocally with each of the characters who emerge but I would like to have seen more physical differences as well. The nerdy best friend is played with great camp by Anna Skidis. In fact, Watts and Skidis really have the control needed to play farce. It’s tough, probably the hardest of the comic styles, you have to commit completely, however outrageous. If you feel silly, you will look silly and then the whole thing falls apart. Watts and Skidis shine.
The rest of the cast is enthusiastic but felt stiff in the opening night performance, which hindered their pacing. I hope they find ease during the weekend because there is a lot of fun to be had with this show. Sets by director and designer Justin Been hit exactly the right note between reality and cartoon and Alexandra Scibetta Quigley’s costumes place us solidly in 1962. Also of note are Tyler Duenow’s fireworks effects at the end of the show.
Psycho Beach Party continues at Tower Grove Abbey through February 23rd.