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Hell in a Handbag Productions at Theater Wit. By David Cerda. Directed by AJ Wright. With ensemble cast. Running time: 2hrs; one intermission.
Theater review by Kris Vire
Idealistic, reform-minded Warden Hope Jenkins (David Cerda) offers a cigarette to Mary Anderson (Elizabeth Morgan), the naive, nervous and pregnant new "fish" at the Calumet City Women's Penitentiary: "It'll soothe your nerves and warm your baby."
That one line should tell you a lot about the point of view of Cerda's gleefully vulgar musical send-up of mid-20th-century women-in-prison flicks, first staged in 2006 at the old Bailiwick Repertory Theatre and now remounted, happily post-renovations, at the same address (now Theater Wit).
Caged Dames lovingly mocks the language and conventions of those old exploitation films such as 1950's Caged: Mary, convicted as an unwitting accessory to the robbery attempt that left her husband dead, finds herself thrown into a micro-society populated by the likes of mob moll Big Lorraine (Sydney Genco), heart-of-gold streetwalker Trixie (Steve Love) and gently batshit murderess Myrtle (Elizabeth Lesinski), all of whom are overseen by petty, hardened Matron Elsie Emerson (Ed Jones).
I caught the remount the same weekend that the second season of Orange Is the New Black was released on Netflix, which is either savvy scheduling or a lucky coincidence for Hell in a Handbag. The script ups the ante on the clichés and lesbian innuendo of the ’50s films; after the desperate Mary gives in to Elsie's lurid tit-for-tat demands, for instance, inmate Earl Jean Washington (Robert Williams) asks her, "How'd you like your boxed lunch?"
Cerda's decent pastiche tunes reference period sounds from boogie-woogie to Motown girl-group, with clever musical references to shows like Little Shop of Horrors and Rent tossed in alongside meta-commentary jokes about the musical form. The cast is about evenly split between male and female actors, though it's accurate to say all of them are performing in drag—even the women are done up in over-the-top wigs and makeup. Jones, the standout of the 2006 production, is still strong.
But whether it's due to casting, AJ Wright's new staging or Cerda's revisions to the script, it's the women who get the biggest laughs in the 2014 edition, from Lesinski's delightfully cuckoo Myrtle to Christea Parent's turn as lovelorn assistant matron Schnitzy. Morgan is a near-perfect lead, playing the genre conventions of Mary's type with just the right mix of straight conviction and wink.