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Home is where the art is for Theatre Downtown

Psycho Beach Party runs at the Venue through May 1



Spring has fully sprung, making this the perfect time to spread a blanket on the shore and catch up with old friends. It's been 15 months since Theatre Downtown exited their longtime home on Orange Avenue, and the company has not only survived their time as a "gypsy company," they're celebrating with a party – Charles Busch's Psycho Beach Party, to be precise, playing at the Venue through May 1. I stopped in for last Saturday night's show and got an update from producers Frank and Fran Hilgenberg on the future of Theatre Downtown.

The recipe behind Busch's campy comedy hasn't changed much in the 10 years since Theatre Downtown last staged it, or indeed since it was first presented at their former venue in 1992 by Per4mAnts with Bill Haire. It's a lightweight cocktail of 1960s teen exploitation and 1970s slasher horror, served with a salty rim of sexual liberation. Chicklet (BeeJay Aubertin-Clinton) is a Gidget-like goodie two-shoes who only wants king surfer Kanaka (Alan Brown) to teach her to shoot the curls. Then her multiple personality disorder emerges, transforming Chicklet into Malibu's most murderous dominatrix.

Mix in Chicklet's abusive mom (Carol Adubato), a runaway Hollywood bombshell (Deena Flowers) and a pair of ambiguously gay beach bums (Scott Gilbert, Coletyn P. Hentz), and you have all the ingredients for a smutty satire of the sanitized image of the Beach Boys era.

Frank Hilgenberg's direction is enlivened by Frankie & Annette-approved hula-hoop choreography from Darci Ricciardi, and without any scenery, Roy C. Brown's lighting and Fran Hilgenberg's costumes do the work of shifting locations and establishing the era. Aubertin-Clinton chews his way through Busch's overwrought monologues in his cross-dressing central role, and Jenny Ornstein is a Gilda Radner-esque delight as her nasal, nerdy BFF Berdine. The remainder of the cast (particularly its male members) is a bit too stiff to capture the same comedic spark displayed by Daniel Cooksley and Stephen Pugh in the 2006 production, and the climax's once-radical plea for same-sex marriage now seems anachronistic, but Busch's snarky dialogue still generates grins.

"Usually you pick your shows first because you have a place," Fran told me after the show, when I asked why they chose to resurrect Psycho Beach Party now.

"The Venue had an opportunity for us to come in here for three weekends, so it was, 'What can we put in there that will work in there?' It's a great pre-Fringer." Added Frank, "We thought it would fit this venue because of the burlesque and the dance that Blue has created here – it would be a good match."

Frank and Fran refreshed me on their company's financial situation, as they continue to search for an affordable permanent home. "We're still paying off bills every month," Frank told me. "People think it was all over when we moved out of the building, but we're spending $1,200 to $1,500 a month just to maintain bills for storage and such."

Despite the expense, Theatre Downtown has now presented four shows since their eviction. "It's not cheap. We're spending on this for nine shows what we would pay for a month's worth of rent, and this is as good a deal as you're going to get in town." On the other hand, Fran admits, "When we had the building it wasn't all roses either; then you're constantly producing to pay those ongoing bills."

Visiting the Venue right now is an object lesson in the onslaught of development in downtown's Ivanhoe district, as the surrounding blocks that once held warehouses have been bulldozed down to bare lots. Ironically, the Florida Hospital-owned building Theatre Downtown was rushed out of remains standing.

"The only thing that I've seen them do is put up a bunch of propaganda on the windows, and I think that had to do with people going by after almost a year and a half going, 'Why the hell did you kick them out when they could still be there producing?'" Frank said. "That whole episode cost thousands and thousands of dollars. We asked them to stay and they said, 'No, February 1st [2015] we start construction.'"

Though they weren't themselves selected in the Fringe lottery this year, Theatre Downtown alumni are involved in several festival offerings, including Jason Skinner's Shatter and Carol Adubato's One-Duhhh Woman. Meanwhile, Theatre Downtown will be gearing up for a production of Terrence McNally's It's Only a Play, opening June 10 and running through June 26 at Rollins College's Fred Stone Theatre. Auditions were held Monday for director Tim DeBaun's production, which uses the newly revised script from Matthew Broderick's recent Broadway revival. ("I'm sure there will be a lot of Hamilton references in it," Fran joked.)

You can't go home again, but Theatre Downtown demonstrates that home can be wherever you go.

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