"L'imitation of Life"
For the last decade or so, Hell in a Handbag Productions has specialized in high camp and low humor — and every drunken, shameless instinct in between, pancake makeup and off-color jokes at the ready. When it comes to drag, melodrama is held at a premium, and it's surprising it took the company this long to get around to Douglas Sirk.
Few Hollywood directors hit the mid-20th century sweet spot as effectively as Sirk, who took all those sublimated frustrations — about race, gender and sexuality— and buried them like Easter eggs in each of his films. Playwright Ricky Graham transforms Sirk's energy into something trashy and actually quite smart, rendering "Imitation of Life" (the 1959 drama of racial tension and Hollywood egomania) into "L'imitation of Life," which satirizes not only the movie's creaky politics, but its grand dame of a star, Ms. Bottle Blonde herself, Lana Turner.
Sloshed sensibility aside (and I am a fan), there's a real discipline to the kind of drag Hell in a Handbag does. No other theater company in town even attempts it. Hell in a Handbag has become very good at this sort of thing, producing sly movie parodies that work as subversive wet kisses to cinematic classics, cult or otherwise, and director Cheryl Snodgrass' production (which could use some snap in the second act) puts the emphasis exactly where it should be — on the torrent of one-liners in Graham's script. The story inserts the real Lana Turner (she of the sordid/glamorous bio) into the role she played on screen.
Ed Jones embodies this Hollywood diva in his signature blissed-out fashion, treating every moment as if it were up for Oscar consideration, each line rattled off with a stunned look on her face that isn't that far off from Turner's actual performance in the film.
Weird but incredible turns of phrase abound: "I'm gonna fry you up a glass of milk," says her maid (a terrific performance by Robert Williams). Double entendres are all over this thing, dirty as they come, but the real mark of a good show is when the PG stuff lands, as well: "Let's get something straight between us," says Jones-as-Lana, perfectly timing it with a pause and a knowing look to the audience.
Through May 10 at Mary's Attic, 5400 N. Clark St. Tickets are $15-$25 at 800-838-3006 or brownpapertickets.com.
Jason Grote's comedy of family dysfunction gets caught spinning its wheels a few too many times before it culminates in an extended (and strangely odorous) food fight that annihilates the sharp-looking kitchen designed by Nick Sieben. And yet the strength of the performances in this Sideshow Theatre Company production (directed by Marti Lyons) keep you invested.
Mary Anne Bowman is the one to watch, a simmering, middle-aged malcontent with the mouth of a truck driver. Think Susie Essman's hectoring wife on "Curb Your Enthusiasm," minus the New York accent. She bears a secret, and it haunts the entire family in literal form: A shapeshifter who arrives demanding soda and confessions, and alluding to past crimes that the script leaves far too murky (except for that of Bowman's character).
The brutal comedy, the cycle of denial, spiky family dynamics — all of that works, and it feels earned (which seems appropriate; Grote is a staff writer for "Mad Men"), right up to that nervous breakdown, trash-the-stage moment led by Nate Whelden, throwing his back into it while covered a layer of slime and the gunk.
Through May 5 at Theater Wit, 1229 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets are $20-$25 at 773-975-8150 or sideshowtheatre.org.
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