Standing under a soft, flattering light, actor David Cerda sports a flamboyant wig, dangerously sharp shoulder pads, and heels that put him close to 6-foot-5. When told he bears a striking resemblance to Joan Crawford, his muse, Cerda replies without hesitation, “I do.” That is, the 1930s film diva as parodied by a 1970s variety show star as reimagined by a contemporary middle-aged man in a dress who’s got a wicked, ribald sense of humor. “I’m like if Carol Burnett and John Waters had a baby.”

At 54, Cerda is one of Chicago’s most beloved drag performers and the fierce leader of the off-kilter itinerant theater company Hell in a Handbag Productions. Over the last 20 years, he has written such cult hits as a camp version of The Birds and Christmas Dearest (Cerda’s take on the classic A Christmas Carol, replacing Scrooge with Crawford), each an anarchic yet carefully crafted send-up of vintage Hollywood and its torturous treatment of strong women. “It’s a very irreverent but wonderful ride,” Chay Yew, artistic director of Victory Gardens Theater, says of Handbag. “It’s a breath of fresh air.”

This month, Cerda continues the tradition with his new play, Scream, Queen, Scream!, a three-part pastiche of bizarre horror movies and late-night fright shows from the ’70s and ’80s. “I always loved Tales from the Darkside and Night Gallery and Twilight Zone,” explains Cerda. One sketch (starring Handbag fan favorite Ed Jones) pays homage to the 1964 thriller Dead Ringer, in which Bette Davis plays twin sisters—one good and one evil. Another riffs on the Creepshow scene where a professor lets a monster feast on his shrewish spouse—played, of course, by Cerda.

David Cerda
David Cerda out of costume

Ferocity comes naturally to Cerda, who was born to an unwed 20-year-old in Hammond, Indiana. After her religious parents persuaded her to give him up to a Catholic orphanage and then tried to adopt him themselves, Cerda’s mother fought to get her son back and won. “I was totally born into this melodramatic Lana Turner movie: ‘I want to keep my baby!’ ” Cerda says.

A thin, effeminate child with a high voice, he was regularly bullied by neighborhood kids. After a year of college, Cerda moved from Indiana to Chicago, where, he says, he dived headlong into drugs and alcohol. By the mid-’90s, he hit rock bottom. Alcoholics Anonymous helped him climb his way back up and find his purpose: writing and performing camp parodies. Handbag’s debut production, 2002’s Poseidon! An Upside-Down Musical, quickly became a critical and commercial success.

Cerda says he has kept busy and sober for two decades—except for two “slips.” The first happened as his 50th birthday approached, and the other took place the following year after his brother, who suffered from drug addiction, dropped dead in front of their mother. (A year later, she passed away.)

Cerda, however, knows that tragedy plus time—plus wigs and makeup and sass—equals comedy gold. “We have such a devoted following because it’s camp with heart,” he says. “It’s not mean-spirited. Well, once in a while.”

GO: Scream, Queen, Scream! runs September 24 to October 31 at Mary’s Attic, 5400 N. Clark St. $22 to $40.


Handbag Highlights

‘The Birds’ poster
Photo: Courtesy of Hell in a Handbag Productions

Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer (2003)

Cerda’s Rudolph likes to don women’s clothes, and Herbie doesn’t fit in with all the iron-pumping gay elves. “Rudolph is kind of my life story,” says Cerda. “It’s about a misfit and a hugely dysfunctional family.”

The Birds (2006)

Starlet Tippi Hedren faces a domineering director and a mad onslaught of bird puppets—while social critic Camille Paglia narrates. “Tippi Hedren saw the show and loved it,” says Cerda. “We’ve become very good friends.”

Caged Dames (2006)

In this giddy send-up of women-in-prison film noir, an inmate battles her corrupt warden. “It’s the innocent babe against the system,” says Cerda.