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Review: The Artificial Jungle (Hell in a Handbag)

By Chicagotheaterbeat @chitheaterbeat

Review: Artificial Jungle (Hell Handbag)Review: The Artificial Jungle (Hell in a Handbag)

Review: Artificial Jungle (Hell Handbag)Review: The Artificial Jungle (Hell in a Handbag)

Review by Lauren Emily Whalen

Including the phrase "trigger warning," which Artistic Director David Cerdadrops in the house speech, while referring to 's use of strobe lights and simulated gunfire. Celebrated campmaster Charles Ludlam's final play is chock full of brutality - death by piranha, daily rat deliveries, hair that is almost offensively big - and thanks in large part to director Shade Murray, it's all darkly hilarious. The Artificial Jungle is Handbag's first Charles Ludlam and without a doubt, one of its strongest productions.

Review: Artificial Jungle (Hell Handbag)
Review: The Artificial Jungle (Hell in a Handbag)
An amalgam of film noir, Macbeth and 80's-ploitation, The Artificial Jungle follows New York pet store owner Chester Nurdinger (Ed Jones). Dopey but happy, Chester is doted on by his mother (Cerda), but has no idea his wife Roxanne (Sydney Genco) is trying to kill him, with the help of sexy drifter Zachary Slade (David Lipschutz). The Artificial Jungle is a worthy follow-up to Handbag's second smash summer run of The Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes, the 2017 iteration of which was also directed by Murray. Both are Handbag at its finest: over-the-top and silly, with tight pacing, epic wigs and the barest hint of genuine warmth among the oft-nasty antics.

Cerda has his own following: as his Mother Nurdinger entered on opening night, resplendent in a tall gray wig and a fetching housedress, several members of the audience applauded. Indeed, he's built a gay empire: a long-successful theater company that pushed gay representation long before diversity in pop culture was, well, popular. When Cerda channels a somewhat...challenged Mother in the second act, the laughs get louder. He's wisely chosen a show by Ludlam, the godfather of dark camp, and handed the directing reins over to Murray, whose impressive bio includes credits at Steppenwolf, A Red Orchid and Writers' Theatre, among others.

Review: Artificial Jungle (Hell Handbag)
Review: The Artificial Jungle (Hell in a Handbag)
Review: Artificial Jungle (Hell Handbag)
Review: The Artificial Jungle (Hell in a Handbag)
Review: Artificial Jungle (Hell Handbag)
Review: The Artificial Jungle (Hell in a Handbag)
Review: Artificial Jungle (Hell Handbag)
Review: The Artificial Jungle (Hell in a Handbag)

Murray once again proves his mettle as a director by amping up every bit of ridiculousness Ludlam's script has to offer - and then some. The music cues (brilliantly designed and composed by Brando Triantafillou) are appropriately soap opera-esque. Keith Ryan's wigs and Kate Setzer Kamphausen's costumes are loud and colorful, festooned with animal prints befitting the exotic pet store full of parrots (that don't actually talk) and eager, bloodthirsty piranhas. Speaking of the latter, Mark Blashford's puppets almost steal the show all by themselves - hungry snakes and baby mice add to the hilarious menagerie and provide a lot of laughs.

Everyone's well-cast, from Chazie Bly's clueless law enforcement officer to Genco's horny, conniving housewife (think Fran Drescher with 'roid rage). Though at times Jones and Cerda fumble their dialogue, Murray's smart staging and actor-coaching smoothly guide the audience past The Artificial Jungle 's few hiccups. If you're into the idea of a bloodier version of Little Shop of Horrors minus the wistful singing,plus adult content, The Artificial Jungle is a thoroughly fun hour and forty-five minutes. Grab a drink, bop along to the piped-in preshow pop music and watch what happens when ruthlessness, tarantulas and hair full of secrets spectacularly crash.

The Artificial Jungle continues through October 28th at Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont (map), with performances Thursdays-Saturdays 7:30pm, Sundays 3pm. Tickets are $32 in advance, $39 at door (students/seniors: $25), and are available by phone (773-327-5252) or at Stage773.com (check for availability of ). More info at HandbagProductions.com. (Running time: 1 hour 45 minutes, includes an intermission)

Review: Artificial Jungle (Hell Handbag)
Review: The Artificial Jungle (Hell in a Handbag)

Photos by Rick Aguilar Studios

behind the scenes

Shade Murray (director), Samantha Gribben (set design), Kate Setzer Kamphausen (costume design), Rachel Lake (lighting design), Brando Triantafillou (sound design, original music), (wig design), Adrian Hadlock (props design), Mark Blashford (puppet design), Lana Whittington (violence coordinator), A. Kay Wyatt (production manager), Alexandra Hazen (stage manager), Rick Aguilar Studios (photos)

Review: Artificial Jungle (Hell Handbag)
Review: The Artificial Jungle (Hell in a Handbag)

Tags: 18-0939, A. Kay Wyatt, Adrian Hadlock, Alexandra Hazen, Brando Triantafillou, Charles Ludlam, Chazie Bly, David Cerda, David Lipschutz, Ed Jones, Hell in a Hanbag Productions, Kate Setzer Kamphausen, Keith Ryan, Lana Whittington, Lauren Emily Whalen, Mark Blashford, post, Rachel Lake, Rick Aguilar Studios, Samantha Gribben, Shade Murray, Stage 773, Sydney Genco

Category: 2018 Reviews, Hell in a Handbag, Lauren Emily Whalen, Stage 773


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