Joan Crawford (David Cerda, left) and Bette Davis, (Caitlin Jackson) bemoan the fate of women in Hollywood in Hell in a Handbag Productions' CHRISTMAS DEAREST, directed by Steve Love.
Photo by Rick Aguilar Studios.

The bitch is back.

The prince of Chicago Camp, David Cedra is back with a laugh-out-loud homage to Charles Dickens' immortal A Christmas Carol, CHRISTMAS DEAREST.

It's the night before Christmas and Joan Crawford (Cerda, who also wrote the book, music and lyrics) has cast herself as the Virgin Mary in a musical version of her life. She is horrible to cast and crew and insists they return on Christmas for additional shooting despite the pleading from her much-put-upon personal assistant Carol Ann (the always terrific Ed Jones).

At home, Crawford is even more of a beast to her adopted daughter Christina (Frankie Leo Bennett who is completely believable in drag as a young child). This Christina gives as good as she gets and the two exchange barbs before Joan sends her off to bed. Left alone, Joan finishes her Chinese takeout while making some edits to the script (Jesus turns water into wine and Mary one-ups him by turning a rock into a nice steak and some weeds into grilled mushrooms and asparagus). She celebrates her edits by washing down some sleeping pills with vodka and is soon visited by the first specter -Mary herself (Rachel Hadlock). It seems the Mother of God is none-to-happy with Joan's embellishments and warns her that she will be visited by three additional ghosts that night in an effort to get the star to change her ways.

In the course of the night, she is visited by the Ghost of Christmas Past (Kristopher Bottrall as boozy flapper and fading star Olive LaLake), the Ghost of Christmas Present (Chad as MGM studio head L.B. Mayer) and the Ghost of Christmas Future (Caitlin Jackson in as Bette Davis in full What Ever Happened to Baby Jane?" costume and make-up) and the Cerda's script puts a fine spin on the well-known tale that mines it for many, many laughs.

Cerda has perfected his version of Crawford over the years so much so that his performance here seems to transcend parody. It is nuanced in such a way so as to bring much depth to the character that in other less capable hands could be one-note and clichéd. You genuinely believe Joan is seeing the error of her ways (particularly in the earlier scenes). Even her treatment of Christina (still, wickedly funny in its absurd cruelty) manages to come from a heartfelt-place (namely, to give an adult Christina a purpose to emerge from out of her more famous mother's shadow). Cerda as Crawford has never been better.

Bottrall continues to impress as well. To call his performance "drag" would not do it justice (and I mean no disrespect to the drag queens out there). Olive is merely Olive and Bottrall gamely plunges into each absurd moment with perfect comedic timing and from a place of truth required for this camp piece to work (if one subscribes to the premise of Susan Sontag's Notes on Camp, anyway).

Caitlin Jackson gives Cedra a run for his money in her spot-on impression of Bette Davis, as well. Like Cedra, Jackson deserves to be a bigger comedic name around town that she currently is.

The songs in this parody (music and lyrics by Cerda) are also surprisingly good. "I'm Mary" features Crawford and company in a rousing, MGM Musical-style kickline. "Christmas Can be Wonderful (sung by Alexa Castelvecchi as Child Joan) is sweet and touching. Castelvecchi has a big Broadway voice and imbibes the song with heartfelt emotion and just the right amount of absurdity . Castelvecchi (as 20's Joan) and Bottrall (as aging film flapper Olive LaLake) hit all the right comic moments in the provocative and suggestive "Santa Won't You Come" and Cedra has some great moments with Jackson (as Davis) where the rivals realize some commonality in "Two Old Broads."

Cerda's brand of Camp theater is not everyone's cup of tea (regular readers will note that I am a huge fan, however). If you've been to a Hell in a Handbag Production before and enjoyed yourself, you'll find CHRISTMAS DEAREST one of the best and funniest theater gifts you can give yourself this holiday season.

CHRISTMAS DEAREST runs through Dec. 30 at Mary's Attic, 5400 N. Clark. Tickets, $22-$30. VIP seating $40-$100.

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From This Author Misha Davenport

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