Taste isn't an easy thing to talk about, but it's a crucial factor in the making of successful theater. If a producer doesn't have good taste in scripts, if a director doesn't have good judgment in actors, if a designer doesn't have discernment in choosing sets or costumes, a production may be doomed from the start.
The problem is more pronounced when a theater's just starting out, and has to make do on limited resources. Under pressure financially, new theater companies often show poor taste in one or more components of their first offerings, and only develop good judgment after several stinkers. I'm thinking, for example, of regrettable productions of regrettable plays, like Jobsite Theater's long-ago Christie in Love, or Hat Trick Theatre's Death of Zukasky; or sorry productions of classics, like Alley Cat's Macbeth or, just a few weeks ago, Krapp's Last Tape, by Quirky White Chicks and the Renegade Theatre Project.
The good news, however, is that theater companies do seem to learn from their lapses: Several productions later, Jobsite gave us a terrific Cloud 9; Hat Trick scored convincingly with When You Comin' Back, Red Ryder?; and Alley Cat put on a handsome play about Emma Goldman. Sometimes age does precede beauty.
I venture these remarks as preface to this observation: Gypsy Productions has just turned the corner. The St. Petersburg theater company, which specializes in gay-themed drama, has put its past behind it with a production of Charles Busch's Psycho Beach Party that is solidly acted, beautifully designed, cleverly directed and, in short, presented with taste. The script itself is of limited interest, but what's important is that Gypsy — which has until now shown an erratic attitude toward production quality — has demonstrated that it's capable of real artistry. A few more shows of this quality, and we'll have to accept Trevor Keller's St. Pete theater as on a par with Jobsite or Stageworks.
As the title suggests, Psycho Beach Party is a satire of the beach movies of the early '60s, and of Gidget in particular. The story it tells is largely about Chicklet, a teenager who's more interested in surfing than in romance (she's got "the sex drive of a marshmallow"), and whose mother, Mrs. Forrest, keeps a close watch on her morals. The real problem with Chicklet, though, is that she has multiple personality disorder: Under the right (or wrong) conditions, she becomes femme fatale Ann Bowman, or checkout girl Tylene Carmel, or pedantic Dr. Rose Mayer. Keeping Chicklet down-to-earth is her intellectual friend Berdine, who reads Kierkegaard and Sartre. And competing with Chicklet for the attention of Malibu surfers is the great Bettina Barnes, a famous actress on the run from the merciless studios.
Will Chicklet lose her virginity to Star Cat or the big Kanaka? Will she give way to her multiple selves or be reintegrated as one cool surfer?
Of course, none of this matters, nor is it supposed to. Psycho Beach Party is mostly an opportunity for actors to have fun with '60s stereotypes, and to expose the camouflaged sexuality of the beach movies of the day. And this fine Gypsy cast, as directed by the talented Derek Baxter, finds just the right style with which to make the parody effective.
Best of all is Michael Titone, who plays the part of Chicklet (all of her personalities) with real panache and intelligence. Titone is an up-and-coming actor of promise, whose performance some months ago
in Acorn Theatre's Servant of Two Masters stood out in a crowd. What Titone does so well is to avoid all realist clichés in favor of artifice, theatricality and collusion with the audience. His Chicklet exists in a state halfway between male and female, an indeterminate position that is always commenting on our understanding of both sexes.
But Titone is helped by most of the Beach Party cast. Brad Minus as the surfer Star Cat gives one of his best performances ever, offering an ultra-sincere superficiality that's engagingly silly, while Bill Bryant as Kanaka raises vapidity to new levels. Sara Wilemon as Bettina Barnes is a daffy kind of movie star, one whose surface innocence and pouty wholesomeness nicely contradict our expectations. Excellent also are Jason Macumber as Provoloney, Lisa Ruzzi as Marvel Ann (she's on a manhunt, and don't you forget it), and Eileen Navaro as Chicklet's mother. Only Marcus Yi as Yo-Yo and Jamie Giagrande as Berdine don't quite win our acceptance, the former because he's hard to hear and hard to conceptualize, the latter because she's too flesh-and-blood in a cast that's almost universally made of caricatures.
But overall, this is a group of actors that's pleasing to watch, and notable in its indifference to realism. Yes, Virginia, there are acting approaches beyond Lee Strasberg's, though you wouldn't know it most weekends at most theaters in the Bay area.
And then there's Trevor Keller's set: pure pleasure, freshly painted. This simple but not simplistic backdrop of palm trees and a thatched-roof hut standing on a floor the color of sand is the most attractive environment the small Suncoast Theatre has ever mounted, as pleasing to the eye and the mind as one could wish. The comedy's costumes, by Keller and Daryl Epperly, are equally satisfying: From a lime-green bikini to a floor-length purple dress, every outfit seems specifically designed to make us smile.
Before I close, I want to reiterate one point: Busch's script is far from perfect, and is not in itself reason to see this show. But the acting, the directing, the design are of a piece: top-notch. Gypsy Productions has done itself proud, perhaps prouder than ever before.
And if Gypsy can do as much with this script, one can only marvel at what now seems possible.