L'Imitation of Life gives an old-fashioned 'women’s picture' an old-fashioned drag treatment | Theater Review | Chicago Reader

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L'Imitation of Life gives an old-fashioned 'women’s picture' an old-fashioned drag treatment

The caricatures and cock jokes are familiar, but the gowns are fabulous.


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There's something nostalgic about L'Imitation of Life. Not just because Hell in a Handbag Productions is reviving the show after having premiered it in 2013, or even because it's based on Imitation of Life, the 1959 Douglas Sirk "women's picture" starring Lana Turner. No. L'Imitation is nostalgic because it's an old-fashioned drag parody in the spirit of Charles Busch, Charles Ludlam, and, yes, Hell in a Handbag eminence grise David Cerda. To watch Ed Jones as Lana (looking an awful lot like John Goodman in a succession of Edith Head-esque gowns) is to be transported back to a simpler time when it was enough just to subvert the classic binaries: male and female, hetero and homo, proper and obscene, black and white. It's kind of sweet, really.

Not that the material doesn't lend itself to a more complex update. Sirk's movie tells parallel tales of mother-daughter angst, the central one concerning Susie, neglected child of the success-obsessed Lana character, while the secondary but more interesting one centers on Sara Jane, who tries passing for white in defiance of her black mom. Either narrative might be pitched to resonate in the era of #MeToo and #prettymucheverythingsowhite, but director Stevie Love and adapters Ricky Graham and Running With Scissors are content to stick with familiar caricatures and cock jokes. It's amusing for a while, but the strategy wears thin well before the L'Imitation's 100 minutes run out. In the principal roles, though, Jones, Katherine Bellantone, Robert Williams, and Ashley J. Hicks go an awful long way toward forestalling the inevitable.   v

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