REVIEW: Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular (Hell-Handbag)

 

A Comic’s Comeback – Wishful Thinking on a Roll

 

 The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular- Production photo #8 by David as Joan

   
 Hell in a Handbag Productions presents
 
The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular
   
Written by David Cerda
Directed by
Cheryl Snodgrass
At
Mary’s Attic, 5400 N. Clark (map)
through Nov 6  |  tickets: $10-$17  |  more info

Reviewed by Lawrence Bommer

Self-destruction, it seems, is the quickest way to create a comeback. In this case it’s as if a 747 pulls out of a talespin just about 100 feet before crashing into the runway. Author/producer David Cerda’s latest confection for his Hell in a Handbag zanies is the perfect vehicle for Ed Jones to do his wicked imitation of Paul Lynde, a basket case in free fall. Except that for legal reasons Jones’ on-the-skids comic who craves a second chance in show biz is now called Rip Nelson (R.I.P.—get it?) who’s hosting a 1970 live taping of a CBS variety show, a Halloween “spooktacular” that he desperately hopes will stop his slide into the bottle. When he gets in trouble, he Ed Jones as Rip Nelson in the The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular - Hell in a Handbag - Mary's Attic reverts to his tag line, “Wooga, wooga!,” a joke that becomes more pathetic as Rip tears himself up. But never fear—Rip is blindly hurtling toward happiness!

Unctuously neurotic (with classic Lynde-like dithering), Jones’ sad-sack Rip amounts to a one-man disaster area. Mired in a self-pity that morphs into toxic insecurity, he hits the bottle and insults his faithful dresser (Barbara Figgins channeling Thelma Ritter). We get, of course, a ton of bitchy byplay in the dressing room, catty wisecracks that feel as familiar as a funhouse mirror. Rip morosely calls his show a “celebrity cemetery where has-beens go to die.”

Somehow addled Rip manages to throw himself into this vaudevillian variety show where the guests interact like tornadoes spawned from a hurricane. These include, of course, Cerda’s patented parody of Joan Crawford who, with Rip, laments ungrateful Christine in the jaunty duet “Kids” from “Bye Bye Birdie.” By now Cerda’s Crawford has become the default drive for the celluloid monster in fetid flamboyance; she’s easily the scariest think in the Spooktacular. But Joan gets plenty of grotesque competition from Missy Aguilar’s strait-laced Kate Smith. This blowsy belter performs a clever duet with Red Genson’s geeky Bob Dylan that perfectly folds the latter’s “Blowin’ in the Wind” into the former’s “God Bless America.”

Imitations that sometimes can pass for impersonations, these usual suspects from the disco decade include Brigitte Ditmars’ hilariously peppy Ann Miller (who hoofs up a storm to “Spooky” complete with phony tap dancing), BC Kalz as an embarrassingly off-rhythm and tone deaf Brooke Shields ruining David Bowie’s “Scary Monsters,” and Michael Hampton’s no-nonsense Bea Arthur (who deadpans “Monster Mash” with an equally dour Dylan). Aaron Lawson adds spice as Donny Osmond, squeaky clean as he demurely declares himself “homosexual catnip”. (This is 40 years ago, mind you.)

Elizabeth Lesinski, as a chatty Charo, makes you realize what killed vaudeville as she launches into the conga-dancing finale “Hootchie Cootchie Halloween,” a deliberately daffy production number that features Rip as Carmen Miranda on steroids. Completing the encourage are Patricia Austin’s adequately brief cameo as Phyllis Diller, Andrew Swan as insolent Brady brat Susan Olsen, and Alex Grelle’s bittersweet Shelley Duvall, a riot as she becomes the butt of everybody’s insults because she’s ugly and offers absolutely no consolation for her father’s failure to appear.

The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular- Production photo #4 by David as Joan The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular- Production photo #6 by David as Joan
The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular- Production photo #10 by David as Joan The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular- Production photo #1 by David as Joan

When it turns out that Rip’s mad scene is the result of Quaaludes that he accidentally drank when he stole Donny Osmond’s glass of orange juice, the loser suddenly rallies and discovers he’s not washed up after all. That of course is just when he’s given a new chance, a CBS comedy with Don Knotts. (This is a show that really believes you can have your cake and eat it too—mock Rip and then care about his comeback.)

It all makes for an exhausting 60 minutes full of what will seem to younger audience members esoteric to arcane cultural references from two generations ago. Despite its brevity, Cheryl Snodgrass’ staging often feels jerky: The dressing room scenes repeatedly drop the energy. (It might be better to play this as a continuous TV show with appropriately stupid commercials inserted during the breaks.)

Kudos to Kalz’ self-caricaturing wigs and to Brian McKnight’s sound design which delivers the variety show’s essential laugh track. But it was all but drowned out by a tipsy Andersonville audience who offered their own clap-happy ovations: Their kindness to these “strangers” amounted to shining generosity. But then everybody loves a loser…

   
   
Rating: ★★
   
   

The Rip Nelson Halloween Spooktacular-Production photo #2 by David as Joan

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REVIEW: The Living Canvas – Demons (National Pastime)

Across space and time in the Autistic Mind

 

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National Pastime Theater presents
   
The Living Canvas – Demons
       
Developed by Peter Guither
Directed by Lisa Adams
Written by Lisa Adams and Don Alsafi
at
National Pastime Theater, address (map)
through July 31st  |  tickets: $20 |  more info

reviewed by Paige Listerud

livingcanvas5The Living Canvas is a perennial performance art piece that has been commandeered by photographer Peter Guither since 2001. Each year Guither works with a cast of actors and dancers to develop a story or theme using music, dance and movement under a collection of images and designs that are projected onto their  naked bodies. Far from being art for the prurient, The Living Canvas provokes a dreamlike, near-hallucinatory state for the theatergoer. Naked bodies of all shapes and sizes take on the moods and meanings invoked by the images that are projected upon them—even to the point of questioning whether these are human forms at all.

So, naturally, this year’s theme, produced by National Pastime Theater as part of its Naked July Series, fits like a glove. The Living Canvas – Demons is a pretty telling impression of the creatures that captivate and propel this year’s storyline, which involves taking a journey into the mind of a mentally handicapped young woman. Young Lilly sees figures that only become apparent to her sister once some sort of mind-meld takes place between them, drawing her from the so-called real world into the world that Lilly sees. Lilly’s world may indeed be filled with capricious, mischievous, and dangerous demons. However, it might be better to call them daemons, the ancient Greek term from which “demons” is derived. For the ancient Greeks, daemons were simply spirits–and those spirits can be either bad or good; their motives are not always certain or obvious.

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That concept for the beings in Lilly’s inner world fits far better than our Judeo-Christian construct of evil, otherworldly creatures. Lilly’s sister must try to determine whether Lilly’s daemons mean her harm or good; whether they draw her into maddening misery or whether they open her up to fresh perspectives; destroy her connection to reality or give her alternatives to reality that truly liberate. It’s a journey filled with fear and uncertainty, but it is also conceptually broadening and emotionally inspiring. It’s a dreamscape that Lilly may be unwilling to leave and, frankly, the audience may not want to leave it either.

livingcanvas9What is truly fascinating for me is that The Living Canvas – Demons seems to take the audience on a journey, not just through Lilly’s mind, but also through time and art in Western Civilization. The naked vulnerability of Lilly’s body, coupled with the appearance of the daemons when they seem truly demonic, brings to mind medieval imagery—in particular, the paintings of Hieronymus Bosch. Likewise, the psychedelic floral images projected onto the cast bring a strong flavor of 1960s Flower Power, but they can also evoke Bosch’s happier imagery in his “The Garden of Earthly Delights”.

It’s clear now that The Living Canvas is not just a performance piece but also a Chicago performance tradition. The community formed by the performers and  audience around each new story or theme evokes a “happening” in the style of the 60s. At the end of the show, performers talk about their personal evolution in body consciousness after performing under Guither’s projections in the nude and then audience members are invited onstage to partake of the experience. It’s nice to see so many in the audience take up the invitation and allow their human bodies to have a greater range of expression than most art usually permits.

   
   
Rating: ★★★½
   
   

livingcanvas3 All photos by Peter Guither

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