Chicago Theatre Review
Skooby Don’t – Hell in a Handbag
The gang of amateur detectives collectively known as Mystery, Inc. are back again. Rising from the vaults of animation history, this CBS cartoon series, circa 1969-75 (later running on ABC through 1986), was once a popular weekly children’s TV program. The storylines seemed to promise a horror story but, by the end of the show, proved differently. After encountering a monster, a ghost or an alien of some sort, and spending the better part of the half hour being pursued by the scary creature, the four youngsters and their goofy dog would ultimately confront the beast and unmask a real person in costume. The effect was to provide some thrills and chills while proving to kids that there’s always a rational explanation for things that go bump in the dark.
David Cerda has created a humdinger of a new play, a nostalgic trip back to the swinging 70’s. It’s a slightly scary, bewitchingly bawdy adults-only comic mystery, perfect for Halloween. This Hanna-Barbera takeoff not only stars the mirthful Mystery, Inc. gang, back for more monster mayhem, but it features drag guest stars Kris and Caitlyn Jenner and Cher and Chaz Bono. It’s a funny, lighthearted evening of unexpected frights and sexual innuendos, while exploring social and gender political correctness. It’s like a madcap merry-go-round with a moral.
In this LGBTQ version of the cartoon classic the names have been slightly changed, perhaps to protect the innocent. However, anyone familiar with the cartoon series will recognize who they’re supposed to be. Sexy Daphne is called Daffy, brainiac Velma is now Velva, Fred is Fredd with two d’s, Shaggy becomes Scaggy and Scooby Doo trades in his “c” for a “k,” becoming Skooby. And his Do turns into a Don’t. The fabulous five are played by some truly talented young actors. Daffy’s tight sweater is filled by familiar Hell in a Handbag Ensemble member, Elizabeth Lesinski. Blonde, bodacious and often baffled as to what’s going on, Ms. Lesinski is funny playing the confused, bimbo of the group. The undeniable genius of the gang is the bespectacled redhead, Velva. She’s played with energy, intelligence and undaunted determination by terrific Ensemble member Caitlin Jackson, who was last seen portraying Bette Midler: Live at the Continental Baths.” In this very different role, Ms. Jackson proves once again that she’s one of the best.
The male members of this band of bloodhounds are all Hell in a Handbag virgins. Bleached blonde Will Kazda, a relatively new Chicago actor, recently rocked in a very different kind of role in “BITE: A Pucking Queer Cabaret.” As Fredd, Kazda’s the epitome of camp, and proves he’s got the chops for some serious comedy. Josh Kemper, new to this company, made a name for himself not long ago as Alan, in “bare: A Pop Opera.” Here Mr. Kemper is the perfect embodiment of Shaggy, er sorry…Scaggy. Mop-haired, stubble-bearded, and with that distinctive voice that sounds as if he’s going through eternal puberty, Kemper is hilarious and quite charming. As Skooby, his best friend and Great Dane—the greatest Dane anyone’s ever seen—Christopher Wilson is brilliant. This cunning canine is the true star of this play, despite much competition from the other characters. Mr. Wilson plays the goofy pooch beautifully, witty, wise and with a sexy air that makes him man’s best friend.
In the supporting roles we have a collection of standout performances. The incomparable Ed Jones is a scream as Cher. Jones has every tongue flip, every eye roll and every vocal inflection down pat. Continually changing costumes and wigs, Mr. Jones can now add this role to his roster of greatest hits. Playwright and drag star extraordinaire, David Cerda is wonderfully funny as Kris Jenner, while the always excellent Chazie Bly is s very realistic Caitlyn Jenner. The two are a hoot and make a great comic team. Caitlin Boho makes a touchingly fearless Chaz Bono and Jamie Smith is frightening as the Monster. The roles of Mrs. Parker and Lori Davis (the Hair Doctor to the Stars) are both played with broad burlesque by Rachel Hadlock; and Grant Drager makes a cameo appearance near the end as a hunky Sheriff.
This entire production is under the guidance of guest director Derek Van Barham. Producing this kind of bizarrely affected comedy, Mr. Van Barham is a true master. He keeps the action flowing and his characters in constant motion. Part of the credit for this fluidity goes to scenic designer Brad Caleb Lee. Skilled costumer Kate Setzer Kamphausen and wig master Keith Ryan add their talents to this production as well, helping create these animated characters so perfectly.
Zoinks! David Cerda once again has a hit on his hands. This hilarious new play is both a gay entertainment with a message and an homage to our gentler childhood days of Saturday morning cartoons. All that’s missing is a pair of pink flannel jammies and slippers, a bowl of Cheerios and maybe a shot of vodka to make this show a true LGBTQ nostalgic cartoon comedy classic.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented September 29-November 4 by Hell in a Handbag Productions at Mary’s Attic, 5400 N. Clark, Chicago.
Tickets are available by calling 800-838-3006 or by going to www.handbagproductions.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by going to www.theatreinchicago.com.