There are a lot of substantive and weighty criticisms to be levied at the RuPaul’s Drag Race franchise and its global juggernaut influence over drag culture. Then there are petty ones, like mine: the series sucks at showcasing scripted camp. Nothing hushes even the most raucous, shoulder-to-shoulder packed bar viewing parties quite like the competition’s sketch challenges, wherein befuddled queens work their way through some of the worst skits ever hastily written by producers against the din of Carson Kressley yelling nebulous directions like “Bigger!”
A Fine Feathered Murder: A Miss Marbled Mystery
Through 8/13: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM; no performances Thu 8/4-8/11; Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, handbagproductions.org, $32 ($27 advance, $50 VIP reserved seating with drink ticket)
Those bleak segments give me a special gratitude for queens like David Cerda, whose legendary high-heeled stage presence and rafters-rattling dulcet rasp have exemplified and built upon the comedic traditions of artists like Charles Ludlam and Charles Busch in Chicago now for decades. Hell in a Handbag Productions—and its recurring stable of players, including Ed Jones, Caitlin Jackson, and Danne W. Taylor—is synonymous with witty, brash, high-quality camp comedy that stylistically weaves Hays Code Hollywood and mild-mannered late-night debauchery via fabulous male and AFAB drag performers. Those strengths are present but a bit dimmed in this Agatha Christie-style whodunit now closing out the company’s 20th season in the upstairs space at the Chopin Theatre.
Tracking the actual goings on in A Fine Feathered Murder is akin to mapping out the plot of HBO’s Westworld, but the gist is a parody of Miss Marple/Downton Abbey/anything where the phrase “Dowager Countess” gets said a lot, plus bird puns. Murder-solving author and spinster Jane Marbled (Jones) and her confidante, Vivian Birdsong (Jackson), attend the Fine Feathered Ball at a cartoony, quasi-anthropomorphized wealthy poultry estate, where a villianous industry mogul (Shane Roberie) meets his end at the hands of one of a dozen-plus motivated goofballs. The ornithological setup serves as not only a volley to spike 10,000 chicken jokes (no complaints), but also to craft some inspired and really fun and feathery costume designs by Bill Morey and Beth Laske-Miller.
There are plenty of solid laughs in director Cheryl Snodgrass’s production, including some great, wryly delivered throwback-y joke-jokes, a sight gag involving a chicken GMO’d into an eldritch horror, and Tyler Anthony Smith’s entire turn as a foppish, berries-and-cream-dandy heir who is screwing up his entire family bloodline. In a background gag—maybe the funniest onstage bit I’ve seen this year—Smith dances a burlesque-ish routine in a skintight bird suit while each foregrounded character soliloquies their anger. It’s part pageant talent show, part Lucky Horseshoe Lounge routine, and fully, brilliantly deranged.
But manic madcap is a sprint, not a marathon, and at two hours-plus, there’s not a ton to cling to story- or character-wise that justifies that running length. Apparent line issues during opening night also kept some key scenes from taking off. Feathered Murder almost presents itself as too much of a real mystery rather than the absurdist and silly parody that it is. And while no show is defined by its venue, (I’ve no doubt that part of Hell in a Handbag’s survival has been its openness to adapting to different spaces) this does feel more like a 70-minute experience in a lounge or bar than a multi-act one in a traditional proscenium. At twice that length, it somehow comes out half-cocked.