Review “Divine Sisters” (Hell in a Handbag): Nuns-in-Drag! Holy Crap!

TheDivineSister-1Hell in a Handbag Productions presents the Chicago premiere of DIVINE SISTERS.

It’s summer. It’s time for camp. And nobody does camp like Hell in a Handbag! I’ve been a long-time fan of Artistic Director David Cerda and his Handbag crew. I even gave them a shout out in a recent review of a show in dire need of their infamous touch. Their productions are high-energy antics riddled with raunchy zingers. During a Handbag escapade, expect dudes playing dames with big hair and long legs. One will look a lot like Joan Crawford. Also anticipate some mugging, ad-libbing and line fumbling. And the true guarantee is a lot of laughs and a good time. Handbag has a way of performing each night in singularity. The show feels freshly-made in the moment. In this current offering, Handbag gets some religion.

Playwright Charles Busch has penned an ode to Hollywood’s nun movies, such as; The Song of Bernadette, The Bells of St. Mary’s, The Singing Nun, and Agnes of God.  Busch mashes the familiar plots into one big sisters’ act.  Cerda (Mother Superior) is faced with a dilapidated school, a postulant having visions and an old suitor trying to get into the habit.  Meanwhile, a mysterious tryst is happening in the basement, the rich bitch next door won’t help and Sister Acacius (played by Ed Jones) is wackier than usual. Busch’s parody falls neatly into Handbag’s closet of high-heeled buffoonery.

To create an authentic vibe, DIVINE SISTERS is being performed at Ebenezer Lutheran Church.  The real stain-glassed backdrop sets a reverent tone which adds to the humor every time the precocious Charlotte Mae Ellison (Agnes) cartwheels in front of it.  Although the church choice is inspired, the large setting make acoustics challenging. Some of the terrific ensemble have to project their voices to an almost yelling level. And the chairs are a pure parochial purgatory flashback.

TheDivineSister-3Under the skillful direction of Shady Murray, the nunsense gets zany. Cerda and regular sidekick Jones are the main comedy duo. A controlled Cerda uses his signature drawl to extend pauses to accentuate jokes.  A frazzled Jones, in contrast, has a hysterical melt-down.  I can still see him wrapped like a mummy with pink lipstick smears and a red flapper dress. Another veteran on the Handbag stage, Chad (Mrs. Levinson) does a perfect Nathan-Lane-in-drag shtick. Chad, dressed exquisitely by Kate Setzer Kamphausen and wigged with purpose by Keith Ryan, is the riotous scene stealer.  Maria Stephens plays dual roles, a German nun and Scottish maid. Although the smaller role, Stephens spewing the heavy Scottish brogue is the more memorable comedy gold. Rounding out the cast, newcomer to the Handbag stage Levi Holloway plays the dashing straight guy.

Although DIVINE SISTERS is traditional Handbag, I was surprised the featured song is sung by the lovely Rebecca Finnegan.  For good and bad, the Handbaggers usually sing their own songs. I missed their usual musical mayhem. Still, DIVINE SISTERS bring summer camp back with religious fervor! Vow to have fun with the Handbag crew.

Running Time:  One hour and fifty-five minutes includes an intermission

Ebenezer Lutheran Church, 1650 W. Foster

Written by Charles Busch

Directed by Shade Murray

Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays at 8pm

Sundays at 7pm

Thru July 10th

Buy Tickets at www.handbagproductions.org

Photo by Rick Aguilar Studios.

For more information and reviews on Chicago theatre, visit Theater in Chicago.

 

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