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Monday, April 8, 2013

Lana Turner Lives Again in Hell in a Handbag's L'imitation of Life



I love camp. No, not the one in the woods by the lake - the other more "fabulous" one, which Dame Edna and Divine have helped define over the years. I also, of course, have a great affection for pop culture - especially from the 1950s and '60s when Miss Lana Turner was chewing the scenery in many films. And now one of my favorite theater companies in Chicago, Hell in a Handbag Productions, is putting on a show that gives the late actress a chance to shine - and chew - again as well as allowing a few boys to enjoy being a girl for an evening of campy fun that made me smile (and laugh) from beginning to end.

L'imitation of Life is a parody of the classic 1959 melodrama, Imitation of Life, and the life of Lana Turner. At one point during the play a doorbell rings twice and someone says, "That must be the postman." If you find that amusing - like I do - then I think this show might be your delicious cup of tea (and if you don't understand that joke, then I suggest you go Netflix the Turner flick, The Postman Always Rings Twice). Both L'imitation and Imitation tell the story of a white actress and her black maid - but in the stage show, Lana Turner plays herself as a faded movie star looking for a comeback after her teenage daughter killed her lover with a knife (which actually happened in real life for those of you who are not Lana aficionados). However, the main - and most interesting - storyline centers around the maid's light-skinned daughter Sara Jane, a rebellious hellion who tries to pass as white. As you can tell, there is a lot of "melo" in this drama, which is quite ripe for an amusing spoof.

But to successfully pull off camp, one requires a talented cast - and, fortunately, director Cheryl Snodgrass has assembled some of Chicago's finest - and funniest - actors to bring this show to life, including Steve Love as Lana's knife-loving daughter Suzie, Robert Williams as Lana's maid Annie (he's so believable in the role, I almost forgot he was a man), John Cardone as Lana's lover Steve, Michael S. Miller as "Everybody Else", and Lynne Jordan as legendary gospel singer Mahalia Jackson (who made a cameo appearance in the film). However, L'imitation belongs to the two biggest divas on stage - the always entertaining Ed Jones as Miss Turner and a scene-stealing Alex Grelle as Sara Jane, who finally gets her moment in the spotlight at the very end (and this pop culture-inspired "star turn" is worth the price of admission).

Summer camp has come early this year to Chicago, and no walk in the woods is required to attend L'imitation of Life, which I highly recommend to all enthusiasts of Miss Turner and her marvelous melodramas - and to those who just want to giggle at guys in gowns.

L'imitation of Life runs through May 10 at Mary's Attic (5400 N. Clark). For tickets, call 800-838-3006 or go to brownpapertickets.com. For further information on Hell in a Handbag Productions, go to handbagproductions.org.

The above photo is by Rick Aguilar.

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