Review: Hell in a Handbag Stages a Hilarious Parody with Murder Rewrote

Hell in a Handbag puts Joan Crawford, The Bad Seed, Jane Wyman, and Mad Magazine in the Wayback Machine and produces a delicious satire with Murder Rewrote. This show is directed at breakneck speed by Anthony Whitaker from a book and lyrics by Ed Rutherford, with music and lyrics by George Howe. Murder Rewrote hits that fine balance of satire, parody, and delightful tribute to stars from the stage, television, and the Golden Age of Hollywood.

This story starts with world-famous murder mystery writer Bessica Felcher (Britain Gebhardt) and her nephew Grady (Grant Drager) driving to the home of movie star June Crayfish (David Cerda) for a nice relaxing weekend in the country. (Yes, puns abound here.) Wherever she goes Bessica is asked for an autograph and everyone has a well-worn copy of one of her hundreds of titles stuffed in their waistband.

Britain Gebhardt is a gem in the role of the New England mystery writer who might have dreamed that she owned a pie shop next door to a barbershop. Maybe it was called Sweeney’s. Felcher has the 1970s New England style with the floral polyester dresses, and the requisite curly hairdo called “Cressida” in the pages of ladies’ magazines. She seems so prim and proper until she sings about how her sister could pump out the kids. There is also a strip club scene that is a howler. I kept thinking of Angela Lansbury pulling that off in her Manchurian Candidate (1962) days.

Grant Drager as the guileless nephew Grady is funny and plays the dim bulb really well. The Angel of Death and some carrion crows around that discussion. Drager carries off the Members Only jacket and dad jeans dork style really well. He is very excited for Bessica to meet the great actor and her daughter and the fun ramps up.

L-R Ed Jones and David Cerda. Photo by Rick Aguilar Studios.

The Crayfish household has a crazy staff. Ed Jones as Carol Ann embodies that plain assistant/best friend who would never overshadow the great Crayfish. Think Eve Arden in Mildred Pierce (1945) with a heavy dose of Jane Wyman. The makeup is that perfect beige pancake that you have to chisel off. It’s as if they raided the Carol Bishop counter at Montgomery Ward. Carol Ann opens the door to the mansion and introduces June Crayfish as if flashbulbs were popping.

David Cerda is a perfect spoof of Joan Crawford. It was as if I opened Mad Magazine and there she was. The brows, hair and expressions are on point not to mention the fabulous costumes from Madeline Felauer. Cerda establishes June as the HBIC aka Head Bitch in Charge, which was very Joan Crawford. One glare and arched eyebrow can cut a servant to shreds. She scares the bejeebus out of everyone except her adopted daughter Cristina (Tyler Anthony Smith).

L-R Tyler Anthony Smith, Ed Jones, David Cerna, Grant Drager, and Britain Gebhardt. Photo by Rick Aguilar Studios.

Smith channels Patty MacCormack as The Bad Seed (1956) with a very dramatic glare and petulant foot stomping. She has a horrid cat named Mew-Mew (Jabberwocky Marionettes) who offers up a clue to the murder mystery with a can’t look away puke scene. It seems that there is a touch of Garbage Pail Kids in this show and it works. Smith also plays a stripper at the club after Cristina has been murdered by poison (GASP!). She is on before Bessica shakes her booty in mom jeans and a low-cut blouse. Ensemble member Mark Bartishell stands out in the ensemble as Helga the Eastern Bloc housemaid, as does Matt Patrick as the sleazy club owner that Cristina has been dating on the sly.

L-R Standing Caroline Kidwell and Daniel Hurst. L-R Seated Mark Bartishell, Britain Gebhardt, and Cathy Reyes-Macnamara. Photo by Rick Aguilar Studios.

The ensemble is really tight and has great singing chops for satire commercials about dangerous children’s toys and mutilated merkins. There is also a funny product placement with a very large container of mayonnaise. Hell In a Handbag has made its own niche in Chicago theater with top actors who have worked in a number of companies. This is great fun and laden with inside jokes and nuggets of industry lore. If you don’t have a love of '40s noir potboilers and Mad Magazine, you will still get a kick out of the acting and over-the-top parody of '70s televisio

Also, this is an audience participation show where they pick who killed bratty Cristina. I’m not telling who won so you will have to check it out and vote on your favorite sociopath. Is it fading star June who could no longer bear the disrespect from an ungrateful adopted child to whom she gave the world? Is it faithful servant Carol Ann? Is it resentful and loutish Helga who seems to hate everybody? Grady?? Get yourself and some friends to see Murder Rewrote.  

Hell in a Handbag’s Murder Rewrote is now playing at the Den Theatre, 1331 N. Milwaukee Ave. in Wicker Park. The show runs 100 minutes with a 10-minute intermission, Thursdays through Sundays until September 16. For showtimes and tickets please visit thedentheatre.com or handbagproductions.org.

For more information on this and other plays, see theatreinchicago.com.

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Kathy D. Hey

Kathy D. Hey writes creative non-fiction essays. A lifelong Chicagoan, she is enjoying life with her husband, daughter and three dogs in the wilds of Edgewater. When she isn’t at her computer, she is in her garden growing vegetables and herbs for kitchen witchery.