(Left to Right) David Lipschutz, Sydney Genco, Ed Jones and David Cerda in "The Artificial Jungle" by Hell in a Handbag Productions. (Rick Aguilar Studios photo)

There is nothing artificial about the laughs in Hell in a Handbag's production of Charles Ludlam's THE ARTIFICIAL JUNGLE. Running through Oct. 28 at Stage 773's Black Box Theater, it rightfully earns each and every one of its multitude of laughs.

The production, under the swift and agile direction of Shade Murray, certainly bests the most recent New York revival of the show as the entire cast seems to relish diving full-on into the madcap and, at times, almost Absurdist aspects of the show. If you're looking for restraint theater, look elsewhere. The comedy is no-holds barred.

Ed Jones stars as mild-mannered pet store owner Chester Nurdiger. He is doted on by his over-bearing and sweet mother (David Cerda). When Zachary Slade (David Lipschutz), a handsome but dangerous drifter answers a help wanted sign, Chester's long-suffering wife Roxanne (Sydney Genco) joins forces with him to capitalize on Chester's accident-prone nature.

Jones imbibes his character with a sweet, naïve nature and proves once and for all that he doesn't need a wig and a dress to command a presence in this physical comedy.

Lipschutz and Genco do not hold back as their scheme comes crashing down around them. Genco, in particular, holds to the absurdist truth of the moment, piling on her hilarious reactions until the laughter rises higher than her character's hair (wig design by Keith Ryan).

The real surprise for fans of HIAH might just be Cerda's performance, however. Known for his wicked wit and sharp tongue, Cerda's Mother Nurdinger is downright maternal (Take That, Joan Crawford). In the second act, he shines in scenes that require physical comedy, facial expressions and very little dialogue. It's a winning performance.

Ensemble member Chazie Bly has far less to do as the beat cop cousin to the Nurdingers. His character is a bit clueless, but still likeable. If there is a restrained performance in the lot, it's probably his. Though, I suspect this has more to do with the script than Mr. Bly's talents.

Samantha Gribben's scenic design makes effective use of the compact theater space. Mark Blashford and Lanky Yankee Puppet Co. deserve a special mention for creating hungry snakes, a school of flesh-eating piranha and a parrot who decides to talk at the most inopportune moments. Corey Strode brings much life to the puppets (in particular, he gives the piranha a rather large personality that is nearly scene-stealing).

It's all a fitting tribute to the work of a playwright that inspired HIAH itself.

Hell in a Handbag's production of THE ARTIFICIAL JUNGLE runs through Oct. 28 at the Stage 773 Black Box Theater, 1225 W. Belmont. Tickets $32-$39. Call 773.327-5252 or

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From This Author Misha Davenport

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