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NUNN ON ONE: THEATER The 'Divine' David Cerda now plays a twisted sister
by Jerry Nunn, Windy City Times

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The talented David Cerda is not only the artistic director but the co-founder of Hell in a Handbag Productions. He also has written many campy inspired tales over the years for the group, including Lady X, Touched by Jayne Mansfield and Caged Dames.

Some theater troupes he's worked with include The New Colony, Corn Productions and Red Orchid Theatre.

Topping his theater work, he found time to found The Joans, a Joan Crawford inspired band that plays tunes to her quotes from her films.

Handbag's latest endeavor, The Divine Sister, has Cerda playing a twisted sister named Mother Superior who rules over a new school in Pittsburgh. Plenty of antics are expected, as the Charles Busch-written production mixes movie classics like The Singing Nun with Agnes of God among others.

Nunn met up with nun for a sister-to-Sister interview.

Windy City Times: Hi, David. Where are you originally from?

David Cerda: Hammond, Indiana.

WCT: Did you study theater in school?

DC: No; I was in drama club in high school and that is what sparked my interest in theater. I signed up for a theater class in college but I never went. I was too terrified to go.

WCT: When did you move to Chicago?

DC: I moved here 35 years ago. I stopped partying in my early 30s and joined a company called Sweetback Productions. It was the storefront theater on Clark Street in Andersonville where the Jimmy John's is now. I had a bit part in an unauthorized version of Female Trouble by John Waters.

I wrote my first play with Sweetback. It was a Russ Meyer parody called SuperPussy Vixens, Go Faster! Kill! They produced it and that was the beginning for me. I left and formed my own company.

WCT: What was the first show with Handbag?

DC: It was Poseidon! An Upside Down Musical. That was a big hit and we took it to the International Fringe Festival. We were in the New York Times and then things didn't happen liked we hoped. That was the first time that I learned people don't always tell the truth. Maybe they thought the show couldn't work but I just kept going.

WCT: Why do you think many theater companies can't do camp well?

DC: They have to fully commit to it and it has to have some heart to it as well. Sometimes it is crude to be crude or if it is a guy wearing a wig that is all they need. It has to go beyond that. You have to assume your audience is very smart because most people who enjoy camp are very smart people.

I like a crude joke myself but you have to give them more to munch on. They need thought provoking jokes.

WCT: So this show is Charles Busch putting together different nuns' stories?

DC: It's a mishmash and a parody of every nun movie ever made, from The Trouble with Angels to Agnes of God—even The Da Vinci Code. I really enjoyed reading it when I first read it. This was about three years ago.

We had been rehearsing at the Ebenezer Lutheran Church for quite a while but we hadn't rehearsed in an old sanctuary before. The Chi-Town Squares rehearse there and it is a huge arched building. It is stained glass and beautiful. It was inspirational. I knew it would be hilarious to do a play about nuns in a church. The set is there and we are just enhancing the space.

We want to immerse everyone in the total nun experience!

WCT: Like when you did The Birds?

DC: Exactly.

WCT: The Mary's Attic space has been tight for your growing following to fit into recently.

DC: Yes, we love Mary's. Our audience likes to drink and eat so we will still have refreshments for them at the space. We are arranging it with a special license.

We are excited to see how it will turn out. The director, Shade Murray, is amazing. I got to know him when I did Accidentally, Like a Martyr for Red Orchid. We share a lot of the same sensibilities so I feel very fortunate.

Half the cast is Handbag and half are new people.

WCT: How is that mixing?

DC: It is mixing very well. Shade cast it very well and has the right people. We are having a blast at rehearsals and having a good time being nuns. These are the nuns from the '60s with false eyelashes and lipstick.

WCT: Are there a lot of rules with nuns about makeup and such?

DC: I think there used to be. There is that one nun on The Voice in Italy singing a cover of "Like a Virgin."

WCT: How is it not having control not writing or directing?

DC: I never direct. I would make people cry if I directed.

WCT: Like Joan Crawford!

DC: Exactly like Joan. I'm not very subtle sometimes. They need a director that can take that ego from an actor and make them feel they are creating it themselves. Actors are a precious bunch.

I think the success of Handbag and any group is that you have to find people you can trust and give them the space to do what they need.

WCT: You have such a loyal group of performers in Handbag.

DC: Yes, we have been around long enough to see people grow and leave the company but stay friends. I will see people in a show that just had a baby. Everybody is growing up!

WCT: Actor Ed Jones is in The Divine Sister?

DC: Oh, yes. He's been in practically everything. I think I have been in less shows than Ed. He is a Handbag favorite. He's naturally funny. You can always count on him to deliver. I feel more like the straight man around Ed!

WCT: What your plans after this?

DC: In August, we are doing the Bette Midler show that we did last year. That will be a limited run at Stage 773.

I am currently writing a Halloween show called Scooby-Don't. It is a parody of Scooby-Doo but takes on trans issues and sexual identifications. In Scooby-Doo things never appeared what they seemed to be but they always took off their masks. We are taking the mystery and playing with it.

WCT: When are The Joans playing again?

DC: We are doing Midsommarfest June 11 at 4 p.m. The Joans when we first started were very different. We are all doing different things now and getting older. It is hard for The Joans to get together even for a rehearsal these days.

I would like to do some new Joans material. We have been getting together and the dynamic is always interesting with The Joans. It's kind of like Fleetwood Mac…without the sex!

The Divine Sister flies into Ebenezer Lutheran Church, 1650 W. Foster Ave., June 4-July 10. Tickets and info can be found at .

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