Here's a litmus test to determine whether you'll enjoy Charles Busch's Psycho Beach Party, currently being staged by Stray Dog Theatre: A sixteen-year-old surfer girl (played by a man) and her brainy best friend pretend to be the singing Siamese twins Esther and Hester for a talent show at the Surfers' Full Moon Ball. The year is 1962, and their song of choice is Chris de Burgh's "The Lady in Red," which won't be written for 25 years. Also, the song sends the surfer girl into a psychotic rage that reveals her multiple personalities.
See? Busch is either a genius at weaving the disparate elements of pop culture's scrap heap (beach-blanket movies, women's films, Chris de Burgh) into new and bizarre fairy tales, or he's just throwing stuff at the wall to see what sticks.
But he really is a genius, no matter what you think. There's a moral to his twisted little passion plays that elevate them above campy shenanigans. Oh, there's rather a lot of shenanigans, from the hyper-sexualized surfing buddies Provoloney and Yo Yo (Jake Ferree and Paul Edwards) to hiding-in-plain-sight movie star Bettina Barnes (Sarajane Alverson), each worthy of a dozen or so belly laughs apiece. But there's meaning here as well. Just like the best fairy tales, the heroine must pass through the fire and learn something to make getting singed worthwhile.
In Psycho Beach Party, that heroine is Chicklet (Ben Watts), a Malibu teenager still waiting to blossom into womanhood. She wants to surf and live and find love. But she has a secret — the aforementioned multiple personalities. Chief among them is a sultry film-noir maneater named Anne Bowman. She's the psycho of the title, with plans to kill off Chicklet's surfer friends and then take over the world.
Watts manages these shifts in persona with remarkable facility under the direction of Justin Been. Chicklet is a chirpy upbeat teen, Anne Bowman a smoky-voiced dominatrix with Joan Crawford's diction. They both wear the same bikini, but you never doubt which one is present. Watts is so adroit at crafting distinct characters with voice and posture that you might take it for granted. Cycling rapidly through a half-dozen other personalities in roughly two minutes, he becomes a radio transmitting increasingly bizarre female personalities, and doing so flawlessly.
On the other end of the female-impersonation scale is Stephen Peirick as Chicklet's sweet but tough mother, Mrs. Forest. Picture a linebacker playing June Cleaver — now picture her swigging an ever-ready martini. It's a burlesque performance that becomes more riotous the more we learn about Mrs. Forest's past — and the more obvious his five-o'clock shadow becomes.
The key to all this lunacy is not Chicklet but her best friend Berdine, played by Anna Skidis. Berdine reads the great philosophers and writes passionately in her diary about her own quest for truth and the primacy of self, even while bitching about Chicklet dumping her for the surfer crowd. That matter of the true self is the heart of Psycho Beach Party — a healthy soul is one comfortable in their own skin.
Skidis is one of St. Louis' secret stage weapons, elevating sidekick characters into memorable performances. Here she generates laughs with her physical comedy, which ranges from trying to find a comfortable sprawling position on the stage to hard glances at the audience when criticizing shallow people. She's a gem here, same as always.