Party City 

ETC throws a Psycho Beach Party.

p>Well, um, ah, I, uh I do, um I writhe all over a man," Kimberly Baker says of her performance as Chicklet in Psycho Beach Party. Her face scrunches up, her cheeks turn red, and her eyes seem to move in opposite directions as she passes on the news.

"Oh and she does it so well," notes Hal Harmon, Emerald Theatre Company's artistic director, silently patting his hands together with joy and jubilation. "I didn't think she had it in her."

Baker's face de-scrunches but her eyes perform a feat of gymnastic perfection by crossing and rolling all at once. Her writhing comments were originally spoken in response to a friend's inquiry into the "kid-friendliness" of super drag queen Charles Busch's campy ride through Hollywood surfology. A valid question, no doubt. After all, original Mouseketeer Annette F., at Uncle Walt's stern request, never stuffed a wild bikini and kept her nubile navel hidden from view at all times. (Oh, Britney, poor Britney, how you have sullied your Mouse ears with such brazen umbilical bawdiness. Tsk, tsk. And, Christina, you tramp, have you no Mousekeshame?) And what about little Frankie A., the original Big Kahuna? He was as pure as the driven sand, dreaming of a virginal Venus and catching the perfect wave while thwarting dimwitted motorcycle goons and the scheming Don Rickles at every hairpin turn. While Psycho Beach Party is the spiritual kin of these Avalon-Funicello vehicles, it's significantly less wholesome. In fact, it's downright naughty.

"I have to say some bad words," Baker confides, gritting her teeth. And which bad words might they be?

"M.F. and C.S.," she sheepishly admits, her face falling into her hands. Harmon happily announces that her profane pronouncements are much more brazen on stage.

"I didn't think she had it in her," he says.

Young Chicklet is no ordinary Sally Field clone, unless of course you are referring to the little-known classic Gidget Goes To the Nuthouse. Though Chicklet seems like a perfectly normal California girl who wants to surf all day and watusi all night, she's got a secret or two. Or three. Or maybe 11. Suffice it to say that this bubble-brained beach bunny has a number of distinct personalities vying for control of her pretty blond head. One personality wants to buy the world a Coke, while another wants to buy the world a leather harness and give it a big ol' spanking.

"Kimberly is an excellent spanker," Harmon gushes. "She's just the best. I didn't know she had it in her."

Baker is probably best known in the theater community for her work with Our Own Voice, an exciting group of performers, both normal (in the boring workaday sense of the word) and extraordinary (in the sense that their various mental illnesses have inspired considerable artistic achievement). Since one of OOV's goals has been to dispel the many media-generated myths concerning the mentally ill, Psycho Beach Party seems like an unlikely choice for Baker.

"It is a stereotype of the way Hollywood has depicted people with mental illnesses. So for me it's just another way to open up the dialogue about mental illness," she explains. With a nod to the celluloid parade of psycho killers, she adds, "Hollywood has always blown aspects of mental illness up larger than they really are. And it's pretty clear that what I'm doing is a stereotype, so it's okay that I'm doing it."

"Psycho Beach Party doesn't have a heavy gay theme," Harmon says. Though Emerald Theatre's mission has been to offer plays by and for Memphis' gay community, the group had been angling for a more diverse audience, and their efforts have been paying off. By offering shows like Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?, whose Martha character has been a gay icon at least since Liz Taylor let her mascara run in the film version, ETC has found a way to reach beyond its core audience without neglecting it. The garish Psycho Beach Party continues in that tradition.

"We're never going to make money at this," Harmon says of his company's qualified success. "But it sure is good not to have to pay all expenses out of pocket."

With beach balls floating in midair, vintage surfboards, and lawn chairs slung back for maximum tanning potential, Psycho Beach Party has more than enough to entice a diverse audience.

"We are really, really pushing the envelope in making fun of all those '60s beach blanket movies," Harmon says. "Lots of sight gags. Den [Smith, ETC's founder] is playing a drag character that looks like Joan Crawford but acts like June Cleaver. All the male characters are like, Life is great -- catch a wave. And it is nonstop from there. It's a release. It's fun. It's an hour and a half of pure fun."

In the fake sun, naturally.

Through March 24th at TheatreWorks.

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