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Tuesday, September 29, 2015

A Few Good Bitches (or my weekend at East of Eden and Scream, Queen, Scream!)



I've always loved a good bitch ever since the glory days of Dynasty's Alexis and Knots Landing's Abby. So I enjoy spending time with mean girls whose bad behavior I find thoroughly entertaining. And this past weekend I found myself in the company of a few such women - whom I would never want to meet in real life. But safely sitting in a theater seat, I had a great time watching them in Steppenwolf's East of Eden and Hell in a Handbag's Scream, Queen, Scream!

Let's begin with Frank Galati's world premiere stage adaptation of John Steinbeck's 1952 novel, East of Eden, which gives actress Kate Arrington a juicy bitch of a role in Cathy Trask, who shoots her husband and abandons her newborn twin sons. Now I've seen the 1955 James Dean film version of Eden - for which Jo Van Fleet won an Academy Award for her supporting performance as Cathy - but I prefer the 1981 ABC miniseries, which was more faithful to the novel and earned Jane Seymour a well-deserved Golden Globe for her star turn as Cathy. As you can see, this "bad girl" role allows an actress to shine, and Ms. Arrington sinks her teeth - literally at one point - into the part with a steely, ice cold demeanor. She makes a sublime Cathy, who arouses this three-hour drama (with two intermissions) whenever she appears. I must confess that my mind briefly wandered a bit during Act 2, but most of the time director Terry Kinney does a fine job of keeping one's interest in all of the play's considerable angst. And he has an outstanding cast that also includes Tim Hopper, Casey Thomas Brown, Francis Guinan and especially Aaron Himelstein, who does a terrific job of filling James Dean's shoes as Cathy's troubled son Cal. So if you're a fan of epic family sagas, I think you will like this Steppenwolf production.

And after experiencing the tragic events of East of Eden on Saturday, I lightened things up on Sunday with Hell in a Handbag's world premiere of David Cerda's horror trilogy, Scream, Queen, Scream!, which features three bitches of varying degrees. First we meet new office temp Mary Santana (Rachel Hadlock), whose big smile hides what evil lies beneath in Taco Tuesday. Then Mr. Cerda himself plays a scenery-chewing battleaxe named Betty, who gives Virginia Woolf's Martha a run for her money as she berates everyone around her in The Box. And last - but certainly not least - is Ed Jones' hilarious tour de force as twin sisters Maggie and Aggie in Shut Up and Die, Maggie!, a mashup parody of two Bette Davis movies - Hush...Hush, Sweet Charlotte and Dead Ringer - and Joan Crawford's Strait-Jacket. All three twisted tales are, of course, outrageously over-the-top, and director Wm. Bullion succeeds in highlighting every campy moment in this 90-minute intermission-less romp with the help of his comically-gifted cast, including Chad Ingold, Christea Parent, Jamie Smith, John Cardone (who makes a fierce mistress of ceremonies), Laura Coleman (whose "Shirley" in The Box is a hoot), and Caitlin Jackson, who nearly steals the show with her amusing cameo appearance as... well, let's just say she plays a real bitch with whom everyone is familiar. And, yes, I can confirm that there were plenty of queens screaming - with laughter - at Sunday's performance.

So if you're in Chicago and in the mood for a good bitch, check out East of Eden and Scream, Queen, Scream!

East of Eden runs through November 15 in Steppenwolf's Downstairs Theatre (1650 N. Halsted). For tickets and further information, call the box office at 312-335-1650 or go to steppenwolf.org.

Scream, Queen, Scream! runs through October 31 at Mary's Attic (5400 N. Clark). For tickets, go to www.handbagproductions.org.

Photo credit: (1) Michael Brosilow, (2 & 3) Rick Aguilar Studios

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