Five actors in drag as the Golden Girls. One holds a flogger.
The Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes, Vol. 5—SEX! Credit: Rick Aguilar Studios

For almost 20 years now, Chicago’s Hell in a Handbag Productions has been dishing up a steady diet of gender-bending, copyright-defying pop-culture parody with such shows as Poseidon! An Upside-Down Musical, Bewildered (a send-up of TV’s Bewitched as viewed from the perspective of nosy neighbor Gladys Kravitz), Valley! (a takeoff on Valley of the Dolls), Skooby Don’t, L’Imitation of Life, the Joan Crawford-inspired Christmas Dearest, and the Santa-season cash cow Rudolph, the Red-Hosed Reindeer. Founded in 2002 by actor-writer David Cerda, HIAH has built up a loyal local following and even garnered national attention; next year the troupe brings a remount of its 2019 hit The Drag Seed to New York’s historic La MaMa Experimental Theatre Club, one of the cradles of the off-off-Broadway Theatre of the Ridiculous movement that flamed briefly in the 1960s and ’70s through the work of such artists as director John Vaccaro, playwright Ronald Tavel, and writer-actor Charles Ludlam (whose final play, The Artificial Jungle, HIAH presented in 2018). 

Most of HIAH’s shows were produced at Mary’s Attic, the second-floor cabaret performance space above Hamburger Mary’s restaurant in Andersonville. But when Mary’s shut down last November—a victim of the pandemic—Cerda had to find another venue for his company’s return to live performance. Affordable spaces are increasingly rare in Chicago’s storefront theater scene, so Cerda certainly deserves credit for harnessing the Leather Archives & Museum in Rogers Park as the venue for his new show, The Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes, Vol. 5—SEX! 

Like previous installments in its Golden Girls series, HIAH’s latest camp-fest purports to be a performance of two never-broadcast scripts for The Golden Girls, the 1985-1992 sitcom created for NBC by producer Susan Harris, executive producer of the series Soap and Benson and, before that, a writer for Norman Lear’s watershed All in the Family and Maude. It was for Maude, which starred Bea Arthur as a wisecracking middle-aged suburban matron, that Harris penned the groundbreaking “Maude’s Dilemma,” in which Maude considers whether to terminate her unplanned pregnancy. The two-parter aired in November 1972, two months before the Supreme Court issued its pro-choice Roe v. Wade ruling, at a time when abortion was on almost everyone’s mind but seldom, if ever, represented in entertainment programming on network television. 

Though certainly fluffier than her 70s scripts for Lear, Harris’s The Golden Girls was cutting-edge for its time (the reactionary Reagan-Bush era) and its intended audience (my mother loved it). It focused on the comically quarrelsome but fundamentally supportive relationships among four unmarried, over-60 women—three widows and a divorcee—sharing a home in Miami. Among other unusual characteristics for sitcom heroines of the time, these senior citizens all had active sex lives. As my Reader colleague KT Hawbaker reported in their recent fall arts preview article, the hilarious housemates—strong, sarcastic Dorothy and her tart-tongued Sicilian-born mother Sophia, man-hungry southern belle Blanche, and saccharine, naive Rose from Saint Olaf, Minnesota—collectively had more than 260 lovers during their series’ itchy seven-year run. 

The Golden Girls’s main strength was the indelicately balanced personalities of its stars: camp icons Bea Arthur (Dorothy), Estelle Getty (Sophia), Rue McClanahan (Blanche), and Betty White (Rose), all of whom had razor-sharp timing honed over decades of stage work and TV talk shows. HIAH’s formula for adapting The Golden Girls for onstage parody is simple: ramp up the raunch, double down on the double entendres, and cast men in drag in the female roles.  

The Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes, Vol. 5—SEX!
9/24-10/23, Fri-Sat 7:30 PM, Sun 3 PM; also Thu 10/21, 7:30 PM, Leather Archives & Museum, 6418 N. Greenview, $27 general admission, $35-$45 reserved/VIP seating (includes 30-day membership to Leather Archives), 18+, proof of COVID-19 vaccination required,

The program consists of two “episodes,” “The Pleasure Dome” and “Blanche Makes a Deal.” Not wanting to spoil anyone’s fun, I’ll just mention that the plot twists include characters visiting a sex club, smoking crack, and taking a vow of celibacy—all elements that never popped up in the original but very well might today if some enterprising producer were to reboot the series. “Commercial breaks” in the form of an audience-participation trivia game add to the fun, as does a sing-along rendition of The Golden Girls’s theme song “Thank You for Being a Friend.” 

Returning to live performance, HIAH is requiring audience members to show proof of vaccination at the door—and, of course, to wear masks in the theater. The Golden Girls: The Lost Episodes, Vol. 5—SEX! isn’t great theater, and it doesn’t pretend to be. It’s a laugh-out-loud party show, and laughing out loud doesn’t always come naturally when you’re wearing a mask. Laughter is, or should be, infectious—and infection is one thing nobody wants right now! Happily, over the 90-minute running time of the final preview I attended, what began as a somewhat uneven and uncertain experience picked up buoyancy. 

For this production, scripted by David Cerda and directed by Madison Smith, the golden girls are played by Cerda as Dorothy, Ed Jones as Rose, Grant Drager as Blanche, and Ryan Oates as Sophia. Cerda, Jones, and Drager—in roles they have played in previous installments of the series—have their delivery and mannerisms down pat. Oates, however, needs to articulate more clearly; his growly old-lady voice muffled some of his one-liners at the performance I attended. The supporting cast includes the hilarious Danne Taylor as two of Sophia’s elderly coconspirators and muscular Max McCune as eye candy for Blanche (and the audience).

Speaking of musclemen, the walls of the Leather Archives & Museum’s 160-seat Etienne Auditorium are covered with sexually explicit, larger-than-life murals by the late Dom Orejudos, aka “Etienne”—pornographic portraits of leather-clad bodybuilders with exaggerated muscles and super-sized genitals that once hung on the walls of the fabled Gold Coast leather bar. Hell in a Handbag’s current home may not serve hamburger, Mary, but there’s plenty of beefcake on display.