…Are we back?
Sweet Jesus and Elaine Stritch, I think we might be back.
On to business, then.
Now, no slight against Hell in a Handbag’s work, or even David Cerda‘s rousingly frank curtain speech. But, while waiting in the “lobby” for the stream of the Rip Nelson Holiday Quarantine Special to begin, Ed Jones‘s mug staring me down, the thing that most set me up for the evening was an old cartoon they ran, the Fleischers’ Christmas Comes But Once a Year. Concerning a kindly old codger devising a perfect Christmas day for a passel of orphans with only what’s in front of him — percolators and saucers for trains, umbrellas for Christmas trees, and so forth — that make-do and make-it-work spirit seemed especially apt for this season. Theatergoers have made do; theatermakers, bless ’em every one, have been making it work.
Rip Nelson, a seasonal Handbag character (embodied by Jones) is certainly a cartoon and an old codger and is adept at making it work, but he’s only working to survive the non-evergreen hell of variety television circa 1978. A Paul Lynde-like has-been/never-was namedropper nonpareil, year after year, he plays host to a who’s-who of contemporary kitsch. Except, maybe not this year. Rip’s laid up in quarantine with the ‘rona, natch. What’s worse: Ryan Seacrest might snipe his gig. Nothing to do but stuff his nurse’s drugs down the hatch and dream up his show.
As Cerda asserts, Hell in a Handbag has done their job if you can laugh even once at the “horrible, cringeworthy, and inappropriate,” be it the usual Christmastime woes, or camp icons obliviously out of their element, or a global pandemic. And they got more than a couple-a chuckles outta me, I’ll say that. All to say, the usual shenanigans ensue: goofy upbeat truffles of songs (by Cerda and Scott Lamberty), double and single entendre up the chimneystack, and Quentin Crisp™ cereal.
The nature of filming the show in advance perhaps might’ve blunted some barbs; there’s no live audience at which to lob ad-libs or topical jokes. And the split-seconds of dead air do add up, so the flow sometimes isn’t quite as zip-zap-zop as it should be. But there’s something just right about a Hell in a Handbag show opening up the green-screen toy box. How else could Doug Henning’s (David Lipschutz‘s) disembodied head float just so? How else could Vampira (Sydney Genco) cut a physiologically impossible figure in perfect black-and-white? How else could Shari Lewis (Caitlin Jackson) dodge a pair of scissors whipped across the room by a jealous Lamb Chop? (Staying at home with the same people will do that.) How else could Bernadette Peters’s (Tyler Anthony Smith‘s) lips be so pursed? How else could Lucille Ball (Cerda) seem so over the hill?
Wait, those last two are just Hell in a Handbag doing their thang. The green screen isn’t necessary for that, but it allows a few more tricks before we can be back in the same room together. That will be magic. So, Pfizer, we’re counting on you to make it work.
The “Rip Nelson Holiday Quarantine Special” streams through Jan. 17 of Thursdays and Fridays at 8 pm; Saturdays at 7:30 pm and 9:30 pm; and Sundays at 3 pm. There will be an added performance on Wednesday, December 23 at 8 pm; there will be no performance on January 1, 2021. Tickets at handbagproductions.org or stage773.com.