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In a review of the 1990 vogue ball documentary Paris is Burning, author bell hooks argued that gay men's drag performances make women and femininity itself the object of derision and scorn. Tony Kushner brought up the same critique in Angels in America, when Louis tries to convince Belize that drag is fundamentally sexist. On the other hand, Susan Sontag, among others, argued that camp is about celebrating the artifice, the performance of life and excess.
Christmas Dearest, which puts David Cerda's recurring Joan Crawford character through a Dickensesque wringer, was my first Hell in a Handbag experience, and I wanted to fully enjoy the campy evocation of performed femininity; instead, I felt oddly uncomfortable. At its best, drag might find an interesting way of fusing the burlesque and the grotesque, hyperbole, physicality, meta-commentary and social or even class-based critique. The humor embraces the clichés, while adding something unexpected: a new layer of language, movement and performativity.
But I can't say I found much of the unexpected in Christmas Dearest; what's meant to be subversive feels lazy. The repetition of fat jokes—and a "fish" joke about lesbians, even—comes across as tired and decidedly not funny. When expected tropes are played for laughs—and then fall flat—what had potential to be radical feels conventional. The attempt to destroy cultural norms only amplifies them.
Handbag auteur Cerda has taken bits and pieces of Dickens's tale of redemption and added quite a bit of his own, including an eating-disordered Christina Crawford and the ghost of Whatever Happened to Baby Jane?–era Bette Davis. One of the more insightful moments comes late in the show, when Davis reveals to Cerda's Joan Crawford that she's fated to be remembered more for Mommie Dearest, the iconic film adaptation of daughter Christina’s book about her abusive mother, than for her own work. (Indeed, for most of my life, the mention of Joan Crawford led me to the image of Faye Dunaway in all of her possessed, performed rage.) As it turns out here, Joan doesn’t mind: There really is no such thing as bad publicity!
Unfortunately, Cerda’s show isn’t heavy on such insight, nor on plot; as the Ghost of Christmas Passed Out reveals a scene for Joan, she reminds us that Hell in a Handbag plots don’t need to make sense. Maybe that’s true, since the one-liners and the song and dance are meant to carry things along. The performances are occasionally fun and consistently over the top, but I can’t say that any of the tunes—excepting the last injunctive singalong, "Have a Merry Christmas, Damnit!"—were memorable, not even in their intention to be awful.