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The Artificial Jungle
by Paige Listerud

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By: Charles Ludlam

At: Stage 773, 1225 W. Belmont Ave. Tickets: 773-327-5252 or; $25-$32. Runs Through: Oct. 28

Camp theater aficionados can beat a path to Hell in a Handbag's The Artificial Jungle without qualm or hesitancy.

Director Shade Murray's handling of Charles Ludlam's final play is a miniature comedic triumph—one that threatens to be overshadowed by this season's larger, (deservedly) much-lauded Little Shop of Horrors. But The Artificial Jungle and its smart, energetic, outrageous cast deserves better.

Drawing from classics like Double Indemnity, Therese Raquin and Little Shop of Horrors, Charles Ludlam—one of the creators of the Theater of the Ridiculous—spoofs the well-worn noir tropes of treacherous femme fatales, absurdly gullible husbands, easily-seduced grifters, and old women with dark secrets on the verge.

Sydney Genco's Roxanne certainly fills the bill for first type, towering above her lover and accomplice, Zachary Slade (David Lipschutz) till the man is almost buried in cleavage. Poor Zach is as much her prey as Roxanne's husband, Chester, played with childlike verve by Ed Jones. Much of the first act sets up Chester's murder by the bored and voracious Roxanne and her easy target Zachary.

Yet, laced throughout are multiple allusions to devouring nature, largely through aquarium-confined reptiles and piranhas, animated by the puppetry of Corey Strode, created by Mark Blashford. Who knew piranha puppets could be cute ... and menacing ... and hilarious?

Of course, characters with the biggest wigs reign supreme. This means that the other indomitable female of the set is Mother Nurdiger (pronounced "nyYOORdigger"), played with nuanced camp assurance by David Cerda. While the first act can drag a bit with exposition, the second act explodes with wild, over-the-top guilt and recriminations. It is here where Cerda's camp craft goes into full swing, from Mother Nurdiger screaming into a stroke, to her stroked-out attempt at alerting police officer and family friend Franki Spinelli (Chazie Bly) to her dear Chester's murder during dominoes night. The scene is both the greatest send-up and the most cunning deconstruction of Emile Zola's Therese Raquin I have ever beheld.

For those unfamiliar with camp as a genre or with Hell In a Handbag's long and honorable mission to explore it in Chicago, The Artificial Jungle could possibly be the best introduction. Creating farce out of our darkest fears is a proud queer tradition—and possibly just what we need in times like these.

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