Red Bones Theatre

Over the past five years, Charles Busch has made a name for himself by parodying dead or dying movie genres. His first hit, Vampire Lesbians of Sodom (Busch himself played one of the title characters), is still showing off-Broadway. Since then he has written, and performed with his Theatre in Limbo, Sleeping Beauty or Coma, Theodora: She Bitch of Byzantium, and Times Square Angel. All have invited plenty of comparisons with that late master of camp in drag, Charles Ludlam of Ridiculous Theater fame.

Now a new company–the Red Bones Theatre, located in an appropriately edgy Uptown neighborhood–has produced Busch’s Psycho Beach Party. The play begins as a simple parody of beach-party movies–all but parodies to begin with–but quickly becomes more complex and perverse. Busch adds to the original mixture parodies of Hollywood psychological melodramas (The Three Faces of Eve, Spellbound) and plenty of camp humor, including a protagonist written to be played in drag.

Originally entitled Gidget Goes Psychotic, until Busch found the title “too specific and limiting,” Psycho Beach Party tells the story of an underdeveloped 15-year-old surfer girl named Chicklet (played with fitting perkiness by Jerry Skagerberg). She has a Gidget-like tendency to address the audience in cute monologues: “My name’s Chicklet. Sort of a kooky name and believe me, it has nothing to do with chewing gum.” And she shares Gidget’s desperate longing to be accepted by the beach-bumming surfer guys.

All the boys have surfing nicknames–Star Cat, Kanaka, Yo-Yo–and live for nothing but surfing and girls. True to the genre, the girls–Marvel Anne, Dee-Dee–seem fairly indifferent to surfing. They’re at the beach to play a more serious game. There is even a bookworm character–Chicklet’s best friend, Berdine–who reads Sartre and Dostoyevski and quotes Nietzsche when the chips are down.

At times, however, Chicklet seems less like Gidget and more like another character Sally Field played–Sybil. Mention the word “red,” and she turns from a squeaky-voiced teenager to a vamp named Ann Bowman who seduces Kanaka, a surfer so cool he once rode “the killer wave off the coast of Bali” in handcuffs. She plans to become “dominatrix empress of the planet earth.” Also hiding in Chicklet’s head are Tylene, a Safeway checker; Steve, a male model; a radio personality named Dr. Rose Mayer; and the accounting firm of Edelman and Edelman. Naturally Chicklet’s multiple personalities play havoc with the natural order of this beach society.

The flat-chested, skinny-legged Chicklet wins Star Cat away from the calculating Marvel Anne, a bikini-clad mantrap who sees dollar signs in Star Cat’s eyes. It also becomes clear, however, that Chicklet and Company are behind a series of bizarre beach crimes in which lovers are knocked unconscious and then shaved from head to toe. And the ending is straight out of Marnie.

Red Bones Theatre’s bare-bones production, though not perfect, has the playful energy a show of this kind needs. Jerry Skagerberg deserves most of the credit. Not only is Skagerberg delightful in drag and perfectly capable of playing every one of Chicklet’s personalities with equal ease, he seems to be the only cast member who completely understands the script’s twisted comedy. Everyone else gets by on mere acting technique alone, although the level of acting remains high throughout. Eileen Glenn in particular brings a nice, understated vampiness to her portrayal of Bettina Barnes, the Hollywood sex goddess hiding out from the press. And Robert McKersie and Steven Tanner are charming as the pair of best buddies who discover, to their chagrin, that they love each other a bit more deeply than your average surf-movie buddies.

The theater space, on the other hand, leaves a lot to be desired. It was thrown together in little more than three weeks, but that doesn’t redeem the auditorium’s PTA-style seating arrangement–eight or so rows of simple folding chairs–which virtually guarantees that there’s not a good seat in the house. (I was in the second row and still had my view of the stage partially obstructed by a man who rudely insisted on wearing his head throughout the performance.)

The minimalist set, at once simple and awkward, proved that less in this case is most certainly not more. Every one of the play’s exits was marred by the fact that the actors had to squeeze between a wall and a bit of hanging scenery–something even the most graceful actors couldn’t pull off without looking like mice wriggling under a door.

But given the choice between a terrific performance space and a cast of technically proficient performers, I’ll take the performers anytime. And for the most part, this lively cast overcomes its performing conditions. The real star of the evening, however, is Busch’s play. Without its well-crafted comedy, Red Bones’ production would be just another evening of young theater hopefuls shooting for the big time and failing short of the mark.