A Black man wearing a silvery cross-strapped top over his chest and sequined loincloth, with sparkly sneakers, stands next to a futuristic figure in a black coat with pointy silver shoulders, a silver codpiece, and leather boots with many buckles. The man on the right carries a silver striped pole.
Robert Williams (left) and David Cerda in I Promised Myself to Live Faster at Hell in a Handbag Credit: Rick Aguilar Studios

Originally developed by the Philadelphia-based Pig Iron Theatre Company in 2015, this queer adventure drag alt-comedy feels both like a natural fit for Hell in a Handbag Productions and a reach light-years away from its usual projects—sisters from across the multiverse, you could say.

Depressed and apathetic about modern dating, a young gay man (Robert Williams) warps through a gloryhole/wormhole into a hero’s quest to save the intergalactic Holy Gay Flame on behalf of a trio of AFAB drag nuns (including Caitlin Jackson, hands down one of the most entertaining queens in Chicago) and their unborn homo babies.

I Promised Myself to Live Faster
Through 5/7: Thu-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 4 PM, Chopin Theatre, 1543 W. Division, handbagproductions.org,  $42 general admission ($25 Thursday special/$61 VIP/reserved seating with drink ticket)

I don’t think I’ve ever seen Hell in a Handbag go full Gay-vid Cronenberg before, but in director JD Caudill’s production, designers Bren Coombs (props), Lolly Extract/Jabberwocky Marionettes (puppets), and Beth Laske-Miller and Rachel Sypniewski (costumes) go hog wild with ten-foot monster penises, cock fauna, villainous putrid scrotums, and autofellating space fish. It’s all so colorful and playful that it wouldn’t be out of place in a production of the SpongeBob SquarePants musical were it not for all the foreskin.

Playwright Greg Moss’s story is an admittedly odd duck, veering from conventional broad camp silliness to LARPy adventure drama to something more abstract. In a memorable one-off scene, Tyler Anthony Smith plays a boy projecting the Gay Flame to illuminate and manipulate doting, faceless forms. It’s wistful and weird and poetically alludes to the lenses through which queer people examine their own relationships. Even artistic director David Cerda, here in rare drag king form, feels like he’s pushing himself outside his comfort zone a bit, at one point essentially performing Hamlet Act III, scene iii while wearing a bedazzled Prince Albert-studded codpiece.

Not every experiment bears fruitful discoveries, but that’s part of what works here. Even the bits that don’t land are executed with such brazenness that they crash with a tympanic thud that functions as Tim Heidecker-style anticomedy. It all feels right in the downstairs Chopin space, which has never been a stranger to otherworldly and intimate theatrical experiences.     

Conversations about camp and ridiculous theater can often feel rooted in the past. But after 21 seasons and 77 productions, it’s heartening to see Hell in a Handbag honoring the traditions of these comic styles while finding ways to make them feel new. In their hands, the gay flame burns bright.