I love Matt Gunnels, Chris Carpenter and Brigitte Ditmars. I went to school with them and I’ve seen them in plays (or directed them or acted next to them) for over a decade. And I never tire of seeing them onstage. And that is why seeing them in Hell in a Handbag’s Rudolf the Red-Hosed Reindeer was a special treat.
I’d seen Dave Cerda’s yuletide satire a couple years ago and thought it was in good fun and a trifling entertainment. I’ve always been jealous of Cerda’s talent for tapping a certain audience zeitgeist – whether it’s The Birds or The Poseidon Musical – he always seems to cook up the right mix of camp and crazy to get audiences packed in. He knows his niche – I’ll definitely say that. And here he added depth and rage to his writing.
Let’s get one thing clear, I don’t know camp. I don’t know Rhoda from Maude and still have no sympathy for Judy or Liza. So when I first saw the play, I thought it was a clever twist on the holidays.
Then Bush got elected.
Cerda is pissed with a capital P and that rhymes with D and that stands for Damn George W. Bush to hell you Bigoted, Christ-Abusing, Alcoholic, Cocaine-Snorting, Daddy’s Little Rich Boy, Asshole Bigot. Yes, I used bigot twice. Cerda updates the play, combining the rage of the pissed off liberal/progressive left with the ferocity of a drag queen who has just learned that Proactiv does not make her Vanessa Williams. Cerda places his musical in a military state known as Christmastown, a cloistered enclosure ruled by a fearmongering fascist. In this case, the face of the military-industrial complex is our own dear Kris Kringle. Dissent is not tolerated and evidently Alberto Gonzales has already been approved. Christmastonians who step out of line are immediately shipped of to re-education camps by hooded figures and come back beaming with holiday platitudes and Pavlov’s/Prozac slobbering.
The plot is a twofer. You have a flaming reindeer and his family trying to come to terms with their son’s ambiguous gender identity. And then you have a gay elf who decides that perhaps AIDS-risking, anonymous, crystal-meth-soaked, anorectic, circuit-party and bath-house sex might not be a good foundation for an entire identity. He is immediately ostracized by the rest of the drama-queen machine and is thrown out on his non-butt-less-chaps-wearing ass. The two meet in the icy wilderness and eventually make their way to the Island of Misfit toys where outcasts like them (including a White Trash Barbie that looked remarkably like Courtney Love) live in harmony. All’s well that end’s well after a butched up snow explorer helps the crew battle the abominable drag queen who threatens life as we know it with her Cher-esque lip-tongue-machinations and blond Aquanet-supported wigs. Now that I’ve written the plot out I realize how frigging ridiculous the whole play is – and how much fun it is. Overall the play has a slight drag in the middle and by the end I was thinking on no one more song… but I think I always have that with musicals with pre-recorded music – it doesn’t have the sharpness of a live orchestra to wake you up.
I know that the show got a ton of hotel holiday traffic since it was produced in the loop this year. I wonder if audiences knew what they were in for (the box office includes huge warnings that this ain’t no sippin’ tea). This is more like going to American Whore Place – a morally-bankrupt world of the used and abused clawing for an existence admidst a consumer-mad holiday. But the house was packed. And a fucking sweatbox. I had a mild panic attack before the show started which only added to my sweating (we could grow rice). I tried to calm down by admiring the cute lesbians sitting next to me. Eventually the panic subsided and I only had the usual perspiration from being packed into a sardine tin like the Loop theatre. I was sort of surprised the space was so small. But Handbag and Co. pack the place with antics galore.
But back to Matt, Chris and Brigitte.
Matt is my man. The first guy I met at college when I was interviewing before I started undergrad. He is an artist in full bloom whether singing and acting or directing (I still remember his stark staging of Death and The Maiden). I’ll always remember his Seymour in Little Shop of Horrors (such a great tenor!). And now I’ll remember his staging of Dave Cerda’s delightfully corrosive and unforgiving Fuck-You-Christmas valentine. You can tell Matt and Dave have played small bit parts in plays before because they allow the entire cast to have their own latitude to create their bits and pieces of Christmastown’s denizens. From socialite reindeers to a wigger urban buck, they give all of the cast time to shine.
Chris was in Matt’s class as well – a year ahead of me. He plays a wretched, slovenly Santa who forces an alcoholic Mrs. Klaus to perform pole dances for booze (Mrs. Klaus played in a broken, wounded, bitter form by Steve Hickson – who did an Ed Wood movie with me a couple years ago and is always just so damned victimized in drag). The last time I saw Chris in a Santa suit, he was Sam “I’m gonna try and kill Dick Nixon” Byck in Assassins (with also featured Matt as Garfield-felling Charlie Guiteau). And in this Santa-suit, Chris is just as scheming, street-smart, Brooklyn and mean-spirited. I was surprised sometimes just how mean Santa was – and delighted that the audience squired as well.
And Brigitte who I’m always surprised by just how goddamn good she is. Her choreography kept the musical numbers light and airy – especially with the men-in-tutus number that had my beau laughing hysterically. Nothing like semi-opaque tank tops with male-aureolas peeking out, eh? And she got to have her place in the sun with her own number as Dolly – a reject doll at the Island of Misfit Toys. It’s always a treat to see friends perform and with Brigitte it’s always an extra charge because we’ve been able to grow so much together as artists/people since we moved here.
I enjoyed so many of the actors. The guy that played Rudolf who I’ve seen in tons of things as well as the guy that played the elf who had a voice that reminded me of Butters from South Park. The dyke-ish snow explorer who was out of her mind was also fantastic, as was the goth-punk-girl that is attracted to Rudolf. I’m sorry actors – I didn’t keep my program – please don’t hate me – you were all fantastic! And of course the ripped body of one of the reindeers kept the male-admiring audience members occupied (though I can’t imaging having to shave my ass regularly for a play – don’t you get chapped with those chaps on all the time?). Costumes and sets (from Tim) contributed the needed cartoonish atmosphere to keep the show on it’s feet.
Cerda’s play reminded me how much fun holiday schaudenfreude can be and encourages me to write my own bitterer-than-thou yuletide refuse. Sorry it took so long to file my review!