When you talk about "an intimate piece," that usually has to do with honesty, or fine-tuned subject matter, or emotional pitch—pretty much anything other than actual physical closeness, intimacy of the body. Stillpointe Theater's "Psycho Beach Party" brings the term closer to its somatic roots.
The theater itself is a vault-like rectangular room with no real difference between what is and isn't stage—the audience sits in single rows against opposite walls, and the actors move around between them. Counting the vertical distance of the staircases on either side of the room, you could be maybe 30 feet away from someone if you really tried, but usually it's more like four or five, and plenty of times they're right on top of you.
The final show of the company's season, a send-up of '60s Malibu surf coterie by Charles Busch, elevates the logistical intimacy of the space to a rollicking, schizoid theater of the body. Chicklet (played by Christine Demuth) is an effusive and pathologically go-getter 16-year-old who really, really wants to learn to surf, but the beach bums, led by the lanky, grizzled Great Kanaka (John Benoit), laugh her off and tell her to go home. You've also got Chicklet's friends, the bodacious Marvel Ann (Jess Rivera), perpetually on the hunt for surf studs, and Berdine (June Keating), who prefers Kierkegaard and Sartre. The studs are Yo-Yo (David Brasington), Provoloney (Rex Anderson), and Kanaka's protégé, Star Cat (Andy Fleming), all three of whom wear tiny little pastel swim briefs.
Ass and tits and dicks (covered, typically eye-level) are a big part of the aesthetic, and that comes across as mainly clever, rather than erotic or distracting, due to the tight weave between body and thematic. This is, after all, a show about sex and sports on the beach in the summer, and it takes advantage of the slapstick and factual closeness—the floor shakes when Marvel Ann throws a tantrum, Yo-Yo and Provoloney rub each other down with sunscreen and you can smell the sunscreen—as much as dialogue to convey it. The cast and director Courtney Proctor give us a production that knows itself; it's comfortable in its own skin, and because of that, it's able to be exactly what it tries to: hilarious, and a really good time.
The earlier scenes are most entertaining where the no-worries-compadre surface pulls back, and things start to curl and dement. Marvel Ann tries to teach Chicklet and Berdine how to pick up guys on the beach: First, talk and pretend like you're laughing about something, then turn, slowly, smile in their direction (Chicklet and Berdine try their best), then—pounce! The girls lurch forward onto all fours, growling, roiling in the sand, gnashing at the beach studs, total animal instinct. Marvel Ann quickly catches herself and shouts at her friends to pull themselves together, but that's it; the veil's already slipped.
Later, Chicklet is tagging along with the Great Kanaka, hectoring him to take her out surfing, to which he says no-way. "A girl surfer? That sounds like a bad joke." Then, looking out to sea, she sees a red kite and a flying fish going up over the water. Suddenly Chicklet isn't Chicklet any more; her voice goes all deep and dominatrix, and she pounces on Kanaka. Not in the teenage hormone-frenzy sense, though; this is more a brandishing of herself, a slow walk, steady eye-contact. Kanaka does what you'd hope a 50-something would do with advances from a teenager and shoves her off at first, says go home kid. But then his defense changes a bit—he sneers at her: "A stud needs a woman, not someone who comes on heavy."
Benoit and Demuth's character shifts foil masterfully here. As Chicklet's alternate persona (she calls herself Anne Bowman) piles it on—"Lobotomized numbskull! Sniveling little prick!"—the Great Kanaka's jaded surf-bum cool wavers, questions itself, and then shatters apart. Chicklet/Ann Bowman eventually gets him down on the floor, kneeling over him as he writhes and arches his chest. She tells him to buy her a pair of heels and tights, and a razor. "And then I'll shave your hair till you look like the little boy you are." Again, the jolt and glee here has a lot to do with seeing it right up close. Every twist of Benoit's spine delivers a zing, and the fury and hunger in Demuth's hips, you can feel it; you have to.
True to its form, the play's narrative rests on what are by now well-established formats for subversion—the beach studs Yo-Yo and Provoloney turn out to be lovers, Chicklet's inversion into Anne Bowman is basically a direct map of the Madonna/Whore complex. These reveals feel fresh largely thanks to the actors themselves, whose surefootedness allows them wide emotional range inside the comedic delivery. So you get wit (Berdine sprinkles in some Nietzsche), and character developments aligning around a theme (two people being joined as one), but the show doesn't feel the need to beat you over the head with any of that; it focuses on the hand-to-hand combat of just being funny.
Some of the old tropes you could probably manage with less of in 2017, like how many times "Beach Party" falls back on Yo-Yo and Provoloney's cradle-me-bro dynamic for easy laughs, but they don't damage the show, and sometimes they're pretty glorious ("Wild Things" has nada on the boys' first kiss in the ocean). A more carefully executed toss-up is the dismantling of the Great Kanaka's sexual hegemony, his confusion at his own obsession with trying to reactivate Chicklet's dom alter ego so that she'll shave or spank or do whatever else to him. It's not terribly uncommon for productions to pull some identity judo with alpha-male businessmen-types (surprise! He likes getting put in cuffs), but watching the same switch happen with a surf bum comes a reminder that masculine presentation and masking happens and causes problems in all sorts of milieus.
The show leaves lots of little gifts—a helicopter mom (Kathryn Falcone) who carries a jockstrap in her bra to discipline Chicklet, conjoined twins in a kimono, a dance montage on surfboards—which are made all the better because it doesn't demand much in return. If something lingers (and it doesn't have to), it's the assertion that you can only pull off this particular grade of hilarity with small theater, in a space like Stillpointe, where everything happens right in front of your face. Mostly, though, the sensory residuals are pretty visceral: When its over, you walk out into the spring evening smiling, awake, glad you were there.
"Psycho Beach Party" runs through June 16 at Stillpointe Theatre. For more information, visit stillpointetheatre.com.