Chicago Theatre Review
Drag is the New Orange
Caged Dames – Hell In a Handbag
It’s official. Alert the public. Camp season is officially here! In a newly revised version of his 2006 hit, David Cerda has both improved and expanded upon what was already a riotous, randy romp through the sub genre of female exploitation films. Once only found in men’s adventure magazines and pulp paperbacks, the 40’s and 50’s saw stories of women behind bars brought to life on the silver screen. These B movies almost always featured the similar stock characters and followed the same formulaic plot. An innocent young girl is unjustly accused of a crime and sentenced to a brutal penitentiary. There she’s subjected to torture, strip searches, forced sex, humiliation and hard labor under the cruel leadership of a sadistic prison matron. Expect no less from this hilarious musical parody and homage to those raunchy Women in Prison films of the past.
Lovely, young Mary Anderson, accused of aiding her now-deceased husband in a robbery, is sent up the river to serve a year of hard labor at the Calumet City Women’s Penitentiary. She quickly learns that while Warden Hope Jenkins is sympathetic and kindhearted, the matron keeping order inside the Big Doll House is a heartless lesbian monster. Matron Elsie Emerson enjoys bullying her inmates, blackmailing them, subjecting them to solitary confinement and strip searches, making false promises in exchange for lesbian sexual favors. Shamed by her incarceration, When Mary’s parents disown their daughter and her fellow prisoners become her new family. Through cliched dialogue, references from other familiar films, songs liberally peppered with bawdy humor and double entendres (such as “My Box” and “When I Flop Out”), stylized assaults and riots and Broadway-style choreography Mary learns to become a survivor of the system to eventually emerge on top.
Audiences who’ve enjoyed previous Hell in a Handbag entertainments, such as their recent, Jeff-recommended Joan Crawford holiday musical “Christmas Dearest” or David Cerda’s sparkling parody of Alfred Hitchcock’s “The Birds,” will be thrilled by the high caliber production values employed this time around. Instead of being modestly stuffed into the corner of Mary’s Attic, Mr. Cerda has a new space befitting this bigger, splashier musical sendup. Zachary Gipson’s extraordinary prison setting dazzles. It opens up like a giant picture book, with sliding barred doors, metal bunk beds and a pink latrine all tumbling out onto the stage and ready for action.
Erik S. Barry has lit the space with appropriate institutional lighting that alternately turns melodramatically moody or flashy and festive for big production numbers. Expanded, enhanced musical accompaniment is provided by Emily Barrett’s rousing, skillful four-member combo, securely perched atop Gipson’s set. Ms. Barrett’s musical direction is as strong, polished and high-spirited as Steve Love’s high-stepping choreography. Katie Setzer Kamphausen and Jacob Christopher Green have humorously transformed this talented cast into inmates and prison personnel with their extravagant costumes and wigs. The whole package, with book, music and lyrics by the company’s multi-talented Executive Director David Cerda, is wrapped in the loving arms of Director, A.J. Wright. Every sideways glance, every audience aside, every high-energy or quietly dramatic moment is thanks to this talented artist.
Mr. Wright has found a genuine triple-threat in Elizabeth Morgan as his leading lady, Mary Anderson. Whether delivering melodrama soaked lines, singing her heart out in songs like the stirring “Victim of Society” or hoofing her way through production numbers, such as “From Good to Bad,” Ms. Morgan is one hot tamale capable of melting anyone’s heart. She’s matched by the always exquisite David Cerda as chic, stylish Warden Hope (who, of course, bears more than a striking resemblance to Joan Crawford). Mr. Cerda is a master of the deadpan take and he makes the most of his skill in this role.
Handbag’s ubiquitous Ed Jones is the prison’s tough-as-nails Matron Elsie Emerson. Sporting a Rosanne Rosannadanna hair-do and a look that could kill, Mr. Jones takes over every scene he enters. Accompanied by his infatuated lesbian sidekick, prison guard Schnitzy (played with relish by newcomer Christea Parent), Mr. Jones becomes the villain audiences love to hate. And stealing every scene he’s in, especially each production number, is Steve Love as the ditzy Trixie; and Mario Mazzetti is also very funny and as the memorable, but unnamed Typist/Guard.
With characters, setting and a plot ripped directly from every hokey Women in Prison movie ever produced, David Cerda has achieved the impossible. He’s outdone himself with this bigger, longer and uncut adaptation of his own play that not only boasts a stellar cast, but is brimming with broad humor, hilarious songs, a full band and glorious scenery and costumes. This production is sharply directed and choreographed with flair and pizzazz. It’s an obvious collaborative labor of love and respect by everyone involved. The result is an over-the-top, fun-filled production laced with exaggerated humor that takes drag performance to new heights. Ladies: start your engines. Camp in Chicago is now open for the summer.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented May 29-July 13 by Hell in a Handbag Productions at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave., Chicago.
Tickets are available by visiting the Theater Wit box office, by calling 773-975-8150 or by going to www.theaterwit.org.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.