By Bryson David Hoff
Parody musicals are nothing new.
In fact, in the relentless war that theatre has to wage in the 21st century against the myriad other, easily accessible forms of entertainment, the rise of the genre makes complete sense: you have a built in audience in fans of the source material, a baseline off of which you can ping jokes, and a prebuilt skeleton on which to hang some music. It would seem counter intuitive, then, to write and stage a parody musical combining a cult made-for-TV horror film from 1973 with an incredibly cheesy sitcom that ended more than 30 years ago.
If timeliness is an element of comedy, then Hell in a Handbag’s The Facts of Life – Satan’s School for Girls should fall flat on its face. However, despite riffing on material that predates a good portion of the cast, what ensues is a rollicking, campy little piece of theatre that’s as charming as it is bizarre.
After her sister’s mysterious disappearance, intrepid reporter Claudia Collins (David Cerda, who also wrote the script) travels to Eastland Boarding School to get to investigate, going undercover as a student. She finds herself drawn into the sinister gang of students that has grown up around housemother Edna Garrett (Ed Jones) and soon discovers that there are dark and sinister things afoot at the prep school.
As one might surmise by this summary (and any previous awareness of Hell in a Handbag’s oeuvre), none of this is meant to be taken seriously. There’s a definite feeling of post-modern vaudeville about the whole affair that makes it kind of unimpeachable from a writing standpoint. The only goal the script has is to get laughs and get laughs it does. The score, while not anything earth shattering, compliments the script nicely and provides nice punctuation without feeling contrived or intrusive.
What really sells the production, however, are the performances. This is pure speculation, but it would not be surprising to learn that this production had been conceived purely based on Handbag ensemble member Ed Jones’s eerily uncanny Charlotte Rae impression and, consequently, how absurd it is to listen to Charlotte Rae talk about devil worship.
While the other cast members have less distinctive performers to emulate, it is still apparent that a lot of care and research went into the performances of Facts of Life Ensemble, as evidenced by dimly remembered reruns still being enough to appreciate them. Special kudos goes to Graham Heacock in the role of the WASP princess Blair, who, on top of being given some of the best material to work with, has a similarly mimetic impression that slyly incorporates and accentuates Lisa Whelchel’s subtle idiosyncrasies to great comic effect.
A definite warning to potential ticket buyers is that, as with most parody shows, a passing familiarity with Facts of Life pretty much mandatory. If you’ve never seen an episode, this is likely to be a very confusing experience for you. A quick Googling reveals that the show is currently showing in reruns on both Logo and MeTV, so if you need a refresher that’s where to go.
In short, this show is a breezy good time and a great centerpiece to a night out in Andersonville. Take advantage of the bar at the back of the performance space, afterwards head downstairs to Hamburger Mary’s or else to one of the other great bars and restaurants on that stretch of Clark Street, and you’ve got the makings for a pretty solid date night.
Hell in a Handbag Productions presents “Thje Facts of Life – Satan’s School for Girls” at Mary’s Attic 5400 N Clark Street, Chicago, through November 2. More information and tickets are available here.