Theatre in Review

Set in the 1930's, this melodrama has all the ingredients you'd expect, sex, drugs, murders and the quick, clever banter of women fighting for their lives in a film noir-colored seedy underworld of a dance hall/nightclub/whorehouse.

 

In the latest Hell in a Handbag production "Lady X - The Musical", director and writer/composer David Cerda plays Scarlet stunningly dressed in delicious blood-red with all of the oomph, hilarity and confident power of his Joan Crawford character. Cerda really is the sun around which all of the talented planets in his cast revolve and he does it with great force and superb dry humor that trumps all and anchors the show with fear of the ultimate female "mob boss" that Hell in a Handbag fans have come to love and expect. Like Cerda says at the end of the show, "Hell in a Handbag is not just a theatre company it's a cult!" 

 

Christea Parent as Mary Dwight, is Lady X whose innocent younger sister comes to town to finish school but ends up tragically caught in the champagne filled "make it rain" dollars mentality. Christea Parent is unbelievably on point as the leader of the dames, the only one with a real purpose in life and the brains enough to stay out of the clutches of the gross "john” and the abusive bosses who take over the club by murdering the previous owner. 

 

Christea Parent, with the help of Kate Setzer Kamphausen’s fabulous period costumes, Keith Ryan’s hysterical and yet perfectly designed and coiffed wigs and Sydney Genco’s detailed makeup designs, (right down to the different types of fake eyelashes for each character) dominates the show with her singing, dancing and fast-talking character reminiscent of Barbara Stanwyck. I was dazzled by her mastery of the period acting while keeping her character both funny and deserving of compassion at every level.  

 

Almost all of my Hell in a Handbag fave performers were featured well in this production like Ed Jones, as Estelle, the "oldest whore" in the bunch. Jones is hysterical as always with his slightly breathy, tongue-in-cheek, sympathetic "grandmom” character of the group. Estelle, despite her age has found her perfect baby boy lover in the young Val, played with adorable youthful energy by another Handbag regular, handsome Chazie Bly. Their duet, “A Lovely Pair”, got some of the biggest laughs in the show's numbers and the perfect casting made their May/December romance absolutely understandable and even enviable. 

 

Caitlin Jackson, who blew me AWAY as “Bette, LIVE at the Continental Baths” a few months ago at Theater Wit is Gabby. Her aging and wise Betty Boop-style character is fully formed, lovable and again Jackson brought down the house with her amazing voice during the showstopper “Flim Flam Floozy”.

 

 Elizabeth Lesinski another Hell in a Handbag regular does an amazing job in her role, her comedic touch as perfect as ever. 

 

Wide-eyed director Steve Love enters the show to co-star as Betty Dwight, Mary’s naive kid sister who Mary is trying to keep in school and off the streets. Love is a breath of fresh air in the snake pit of despair these women swim in as the hopeful innocent, tap dancing her way into the audience’s hearts. 

 

Laura Coleman, one of the women playing a man characters is really funny and sharp as Frank Gorham, the attorney seeking justice of his own while Adrian Hadlock, also plays several characters and is really ingenious in his multi-layered portrayals of Crandall, Louie and the Judge.

 

“Lady X” has so many fun and wonderful twists and turns, it would be shame to spoil them all by giving them away, but suffice it to say David Cerda has once again created a whole new world all his own where the lines between male and female, innocent and guilty are marvelously blurred to show the vulnerability of all humankind when pressed to fight for their lives, livelihood and self-respect.

 

Cerda’s play is full of belly laughs from beginning to end and contains several very touching song numbers, like white picket fence, flower-filled "The House on the Hill", which all the women dream of retiring to, the song rounding out the hilarity with genuine sentiment. 

 

"Lady X" is destined to become another Hell in a Handbag hit.  

 

I highly recommend “Lady X"  for ladies , gentlemen and flim flam floozies everywhere seeking to escape from the horrors of the current political landscape facing the LGTBQ community and instead be surrounded by a joyous, celebration of strong women from all walks of life and the dangers they faced in the 30's as well as the dangers they face now.

 

“Lady X - The Musical" is being performed at Mary’s Attic in Andersonville through June 17th. For more show information or to purchase tickets visit http://www.handbagproductions.org/.   

 

Published in Theatre in Review

When October rolls along, Chicagoans have always been fortunate as far as the variety of Halloween events that take place around the city. And while many of these events take the form of haunted houses or annual midnight runs of The Rocky Horror Picture Show, Hell in a Handbag Productions offers a much more thrilling, unique and hilarious option in “Scream, Queen, Scream!”. Set in Mary’s Attic, the intimate theatre space just above Mary’s Hamburgers on Clark Street in Andersonville, “Scream, Queen, Scream!” is the riotously funny brainchild of writer David Cerda who once again masterfully blends his own distinctive blend of sardonic humor with a strong flavor of cult classic cinema.

Skillfully directed by W.M. Bullion, “Scream, Queen, Scream!” brings to life three terrifying tales hosted by “Dragula” who is wonderfully played by John Cardone. “Dragula” sets the mood for each upcoming vignette by joking and interacting with the crowd and prompting bloodcurdling screams at key moments during each performance. Yes, prepare to scream your ass off!

The first tale, “Taco Tuesday”, is an all too realistic at the terrors of working in an office environment. If the women’s dated 1980’s hairstyles and bad office jokes aren’t scary enough, a visit from Satana and a mysterious copy machine are sure give you nightmares. Candy with a “C” is the “funny one” even more so than Kandy with a “K”, but that changes when Candy’s suspicions puts her at odds against Satana, whom everyone else seems to adore. When all hell finally breaks loose it’s up to Candy to save the day but we wonder if it is too late. Perfect casting here as Kristopher Bottrall is simply dynamite as the ditzy Candy.

In tale number two, “The Box”, a suspicious crate is found and we just know nothing good can come of it. Taken from “The Crate” from the 1980’s film Creepshow, Cerda takes an already campy story and then takes it an extra few hundred miles. It’s not every day one finds a monster in a box and Hell in a Handbag certainly makes the most of it. Chad Ingold shines as Harvey, the tread upon husband of nagging and utterly obnoxious Betty Carr.

“Shut Up and Die, Maggie!” salutes the hag horror films of the 1960’s taking bits from the Bette Davis classics Hush, Hush, Sweet Caroline and Dead Ringer while throwing in a bit of Joan Crawford’s Strait Jacket (you had to figure we’d get a dose of Joan at some point). Ed Jones gets to show off his comedy genius once again as he plays twin sisters Maggie and Aggie Honeycutt, cleverly and uproariously portrayed by the delightfully devilish brilliance of Handbag and company. While one sister, Aggie, is educated, prudent and formal, the other is beautiful, lighthearted and everyone’s favorite. After Maggie’s boyfriend is savagely murdered, Maggie is blamed then committed to an insane asylum. Twenty years later, Maggie returns to her family only for more horrors to be revealed. 

“Scream, Queen, Scream!” is the perfect Halloween treat. Go see it. With a slew of intensely funny performances in multiple roles by Handbag’s talented ensemble and, of course, the very gifted David Cerda himself, this is an affordable show that can easily be enjoyed again and again. In fact, there is so much funny compacted into this warped trilogy of horror, and simultaneous humor going on at once, I would absolutely recommend seeing this a second or even third time.     

“Scream, Queen, Scream!” is being performed at Mary’s Attic through October 31st. For tickets and/or more show information visit http://www.handbagproductions.org/. Hell in a Handbag will also be holding their annual benefit “The Handbag Sampler” at Dank Haus Cultural Center on Sunday, October 18th where you can mingle with all your favorite Handbag characters while enjoying food and drinks. The event will include a raffle and silent auction. Tickets are priced at a very reasonable $90 or $80 if bought in advance at www.brownpapertickets.com.      

 

 

Published in Theatre Reviews

Hell in a Handbag Productions tests the boundaries of morality once again as only they can, this time kicking off its 2015-16 season with “Miracle!”, the hilarious lampoon of The Miracle Worker. Instead of Helen Keller, we meet Helen Stellar, a deaf and blind 20-year-old drag queen who is thrust into performing at The Brass Connection, otherwise known as The Ass Infection. Written by Dan Savage, a well-known authority and activist on sexuality and GLBTQ issues, “Miracle!” doesn’t hold any punches, unapologetically injecting its braised humor into its audience with rapid fire speed and pinpoint accuracy.

Artistic Director David Cerda is brilliant (as always) as Helen Stellar’s protective drag queen mother and biological father, Crystal Pain, owner and show coordinator of The Brass Connection. Cerda, a true master of satire, takes the role of Crystal and knocks it out of the park with his deadpan delivery, stark remarks and physical comedy. In “Miracle!” we also get a deluge of tremendously funny performances from Handbag favorites Ed Jones, Elizabeth Lesinski, Sydney Genco and Steve Love as well as newcomer Kristopher Bottrall who is very impressive as Bailey Legal.

Everything is going smoothly at The Brass Connection, or so it seems. Gloria Blaze (Jones), Sissy Jizzmore (Jamie Smith) and the girls perform in the club’s nightly revue while Helen Stellar stumbles her way through an awkward dance routine with the help of a shock collar that “protects” her from falling off the stage. But when Bailey Legal gets jealous of the attention that Helen receives, a call is made to Child Protective Services and an investigation ensues as to the child’s well-being. After assessing the situation, caseworker Annie Sullivan (Lesinski) determines that Helen’s environment is unfit for tapping into her true potential. It is soon agreed that Annie take Helen for a period of three weeks so that she can work with her one on one. This proves more difficult than anticipated as Annie tries to connect with Helen by pressing sign language into her hands in relation to surrounding objects. Of course this process, as done by Handbag is also brutally droll.

Still, Annie’s persistence pays off as we begin to see a transformation occur in Helen. As part of her therapy, Annie takes Helen to a lesbian bar (opening up another world to which Savage is able to find the humor) to work out her performance kinks in an attempt to show a shock collar is not needed. Performing with Helen during the bar’s Bearded Slam event is also therapeutic for Annie as she reaches deep inside herself to conquer her own stage insecurities. Before too long, it is time for Annie to return Helen to Crystal as we, the audience, wonder what the outcome will be.  

The humor is offensive, but tasty. It’s campy dialogue gutty and unforgiving yet we relate to it so easily. Perhaps we are looking at something in the neighborhood of Helen Keller meets The Birdcage on crack, and that would be putting it mildly.

As funny as “Miracle!” is, whether a dance and song routine with attitude and pizazz (“Stop in the Name of Love”, for one) or in its multitude of hilarious character interactions, there is actually a heartwarming story taking place with plenty of feel good moments. I’m not going to go as far to say that one might get teary-eyed, but it is certainly not beyond the realm of possibility. The show triumpantly ends with a big finale number that has audience members clapping to the beat and cheering for the show’s wonderfully colorful characters.  

As a longtime fan of Cerda, Jones and Lesinski, I am happy to say that this Handbag nucleus of comic wunderkinds have once again hit their stride in what is a fully entertaining story that generates laughs as quickly as its many wig changes.   

“Miracle!” is being performed through July 10th at Mary’s Attic, a cozy upstairs theatre located at 5400 N. Clark Street in Andersonville. For tickets and/or more show information, visit www.handbagproductions.org. If you are looking for a night of memorable comedy in a fun atmosphere, this is a summer event that you will not want to miss. Hell in a Handbag Productions – the king, or queen, of parody done right. 

Published in Theatre Reviews

 

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