By Grace Ferolo
In 1964, Susan Sontag defined camp as “an aesthetic sensibility that is plain to see but hard for most of us to explain: an intentional over-the-topness, a slightly (or extremely) “off” quality, bad taste as a vehicle for good art.” Coined “the gold standard of camp” by the Chicago Reader, Hell in a Handbag Productions continues its twentieth anniversary season with one of its most popular holiday musicals, Christmas Dearest; a queer-friendly crossover between A Christmas Carol and Mommie Dearest.
Upon walking into the auditorium of Ebenezer Lutheran Church, located in Chicago’s Andersonville neighborhood, this “aesthetic sensibility” is apparent before Christmas Dearest even begins. To the right of the entrance sits a makeshift bar table, doling out PBR tallboys and White Claws in various flavors. Rows and rows of stackable church chairs comprise audience seating with crew members continuously setting up more as needed. The ceiling is vaulted, the set looks lovingly handmade; what appears unintentional is, in fact, rich with intention.
The show opens and we’re delivered “over-the-topness” in the form of Joan Crawford, played by Handbag’s artistic director, David Cerda. (Cerda also wrote the libretto; music is by Scott Lamberty.). The year is 1953 and Ms. Crawford is desperately trying to reignite her career with a new film, Oh, Mary!, a musical adaptation of the Virgin Mary’s life. In classic Crawford fashion, everything has to be perfect – even if that means firing a pregnant co-star with no place to live and forcing her cast to work on Christmas Day. Even Joan’s loyal assistant, Carol-Anne (Ed Jones), has a hard time justifying her erratic behavior. To illuminate the error of her ways and teach her the true meaning of the holidays, Joan is visited by three ghosts: former co-star Olive LaLake (the Ghost of Christmas Past), Hollywood rival Bette Davis (Christmas Present) and MGM mogul Louis B. Mayer (Christmas Future).
Under the direction of Derek Van Barham, the cast comprehensively weaves these two classic tales (make that “classic and a half?”) together. Some of the biggest laughs come from direct references to A Christmas Carol and Mommie Dearest, but with a Hell-ish twist. Cerda uses his intimate familiarity with the material to playfully poke fun at this cross section; like when he refers to Carol-Anne’s Teeny Tina (a play on Bob Cratchet’s Tiny Tim) as “Taco Tuesday,” for example, or when he breaks the fourth wall to say “as if this isn’t all true,” winking at Christina Crawford’s infamous memoir about her mommie dearest.
The staging itself flips between chaotically crowded to cleverly choreographed, with a full-blown dance break led by 20s Joan and Olive LaLake (Marissa Williams and Tyler Anthony Smith, respectively). While a church auditorium may be an unconventional place to play, the space is used with intention and in its entirety. Cast members frequently move up and down the aisle as the show progresses and the auditorium balcony is used to emphasize the ghoulish introduction of Bette Davis (Caitlin Jackson).
Stand-out performances include Williams’s and Jackson’s strong vocal stylings, as well as playful puppeteering by Lolly Extract, garnering big laughs by her prop-forward presence alone. Where Hell in a Handbag particularly shines is in the company’s ability to paint a richer, more intersectional picture of characters left one-dimensional in a previous life. We see this sensibility most clearly expressed through the character of Carol-Anne and her deeply loving, queer-relationship with Mama Vernita, played by Chicago drag performer, Coco Sho-Nell.
As we walk with Joan through her journey between Christmas past, present and future, we see a woman reconciling with the disparity between how her life looks and how her life feels: “I’m one of Hollywood’s biggest stars… I’m happy.” This questioning speaks to an audience working to move forward from a year-plus in isolation. For the fortunate among us, our lives look relatively the same, but does that make us a good friend? A good parent? A good citizen of the world? This collective inner work is brought to life through Joan’s odyssey, eventually finding her peace through compassion.
While Christmas Dearest is certainly a fun way to spend a holiday evening, the purchase of a ticket carries a higher, more long-term purpose. After being inundated with news of creative companies being forced to close their doors, or artists having to change careers entirely, it’s empowering and, quite frankly, beautiful to learn that Hell in Handbag Productions is celebrating its twentieth anniversary this year. After curtain call, David Cerda remained onstage in full finale garb to say, “Because of you all, we never felt abandoned. We never felt like we had to close, and that’s because of this community.”
Cerda ended his post-show speech by saying he’d be collecting donations for Groceryland, a food distribution center for individuals affected by HIV/AIDs in the community, at the door. Remaining in full Joan Crawford makeup and costume (with the addition of a mask), he stood with a basket, warmly accepting small bill donations and thanking audience members for coming. While Hell in a Handbag’s “aesthetic sensibility” is without a doubt over-the-top, the theater company’s community-driven ethos shows there’s nothing over-the-top about human decency – it’s just the right thing to do.
Christmas Dearest runs through December 31st, 2021 at Ebenezer Lutheran Church, 1650 W. Foster Ave, Chicago, IL, 60640. For tickets, please visit christmasdearest.eventbrite.com.
Hell in a Handbag requires proof of full vaccination and masking at all performances. The entire cast and crew is fully vaccinated.
Photos by Rick Aguilar Studios.