Theatre Review: Psycho Beach Party has Stellar Acting but Falls a Bit Flat
Rare do I see a show that leaves me asking, “What the…?” (Insert word of choice there). While watching the opening night of Columbus Immersive Theater’s production of Psycho Beach Party, I felt annoyance, confusion, frustration, and a little anger. I heard a lot of laughter from the audience, but I, personally, found very little funny apart from a few one-liners and, of course, the final moments of Act One.
A note: this review contains a few more spoilers than I would normally write, nothing too specific, but a tad climatically-focused.
The show centers on Chicklet Forrest, a naive sixteen year old girl living on Malibu Beach with her over-bearing and over-protecting mother. She desperately wants to learn to surf, a thing unheard of for women in 1962. Eventually, she convinces The Great Kanaka, the caricature, good-looking jerk surf-God (played wonderfully by Dan Montour) to teach her. While the rest of the beach bums and mean girls dislike Chicklet because she is younger and weird, Kanaka sees something in her and takes a chance.
Inside her live multiple personalities, Ann Bowman proving the strongest of them. Ann Bowman, the cougar, thrives on turning younger men into sexual submissives and eventually taking over the world with this power. Throughout the summer, Chicklet transforms from the nice girl on the beach into an uncontrollable conglomeration of the personalities within her.
This production features a couple exceptional drag performers: Nick Hardin as Chicklet and Doug Joseph as her mother. Nick Hardin is amazing. Simply amazing. While the play is quite over-the-top and campy, he still manages to portray a relatively convincing sixteen year old girl and younger. He dominates as Ann Bowman, pulsing energy throughout the large space. His three to six other characters remain so distinct and rapid that Hardin really can do nothing but impress with his performance. Doug Joseph embodies that cruel and hawk-like mother figure in again, the campy fashion. Kudos to both of them as well as Vera Ryan Cremeans whose portrayal of the geeky, awkward, hyper-smart and philosophical best-friend of Chicklet, Berdine, warms the heart.
Over-achieving Edward Carignan directed, choreographed, set and costume designed this show—a bold, yet perhaps, unwise undertaking. Parts of the show feel over or under-rehearsed and the blocking feels stagnant on the sprawling and slightly superfluous set. A fun and promising luau dance number leads into an incredibly awkward breakdown for Chicklet due to the ensemble’s statuesque and stoic response to the situation. Perhaps this derives from a poor script; the ending seems rushed and quite preachy, as though everything must be wrapped up nicely with a bow, a downfall of some comedy.
This leads me here. Psycho Beach Party, I presume, exists as a dark comedy ala Mommie Dearest meets a surfer movie. However, I find the writing insidiously offensive. This show perpetuates stigma and misunderstandings of mental disorders. The audience laughs at truly traumatic events (most of Chicklet’s and her mother’s interactions) and that is seen as okay.
I admire the attempts to make jokes of the absurd ways in which people cope with mental disorders, for instance, when Star Cat (Jason Carl Crase), the psychiatry major drop out, attempts to hypnotize and get Chicklet to talk. “It’s okay. He’s had three semesters of psychology.” Perhaps the script is self-aware, but I am doubtful this production is. Rather, it seems to feed off of cheap gags, a reference, once again, to interactions between Chicklet and her mother.
Most frustrating, the ending ignores any healing process. These characters probably need therapy and time, but the ending of the show paints everything as fine. I realize that a show as campy as this would indeed finish this way. No one would depict reality; the audience should leave smiling. I then question the intent of this play, and moreover, this production. Why do this? Simple entertainment? There are better options. Camp is fine. Camp is fun. But this might be too much.
Psycho Beach Party plays through Feb. 1 in the Garden Theater at Short North Stage, 1187 N. High Street and plays Fri.-Sat. at 8 pm; Sun., 2/1 at 4:30 pm. $20. More information can be found online at beachpartycolumbus.com.