Downers Grove actress sends up '80s sitcom in Handbag's 'Facts of Life'

  • Alexa Castelvecchi, center, plays tough girl Jo in Hell in a Handbag's pop-culture parody "The Facts of Life -- Satan's School for Girls." The cast also includes Graham Heacock, left, Katy Campbell, Castelvecchi, Robert Williams and Brenna L. Watkins.

    Alexa Castelvecchi, center, plays tough girl Jo in Hell in a Handbag's pop-culture parody "The Facts of Life -- Satan's School for Girls." The cast also includes Graham Heacock, left, Katy Campbell, Castelvecchi, Robert Williams and Brenna L. Watkins. Courtesy of Rick Aguilar Studios

 
 
Posted10/18/2019 6:00 AM

In 2015, aspiring actress Alexa Castelvecchi, then a student at Roosevelt University Chicago College of Performing Arts, wasn't doing much acting.

"I had not been cast in any of my school shows," said the Downers Grove native. "I was down in the dumps."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

Her mom sent her an audition notice for Hell in a Handbag's holiday parody "Christmas Dearest," in which Joan Crawford takes on the Ebenezer Scrooge role. Castelvecchi signed up. During the audition, Handbag co-founder and artistic director David Cerda praised her comedic timing.

She got the part -- and more.

David Cerda, center left, plays Claudia, a student, and Ed Jones, center right, plays house mother Mrs. Garrett in Hell in a Handbag's premiere parody "The Facts of Life -- Satan's School for Girls." The cast also includes Brenna L. Watkins, clockwise from bottom left, Katy Campbell, Alexa Castelvecchi, Graham Heacock and Robert Williams.
David Cerda, center left, plays Claudia, a student, and Ed Jones, center right, plays house mother Mrs. Garrett in Hell in a Handbag's premiere parody "The Facts of Life -- Satan's School for Girls." The cast also includes Brenna L. Watkins, clockwise from bottom left, Katy Campbell, Alexa Castelvecchi, Graham Heacock and Robert Williams. - Courtesy of Rick Aguilar Studios

Castelvecchi, 23, currently co-stars as leather jacket-wearing, tomboy Jo in Handbag's premiere "The Facts of Life -- Satan's School for Girls." It's a sendup/mashup of the 1980s sitcom about prep school students and their housemother and 1970s made-for-TV movies "Satan's School for Girls" and "The Initiation of Sarah."

"I owe so much to David," Castelvecchi said. "He took a chance on me."

Hell in a Handbag is known for its campy, pop-culture parodies and cross-gender casts. "Parody with heart" has always been Cerda's intent. And, he said, the productions are never mean-spirited.

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"We try to keep it clever," Cerda said. "We don't make fun of our subjects and we only parody subjects we love."

Founded in 2002, Handbag was established to make people laugh through shows that upend conventional tropes, push boundaries and comment on the ridiculousness of life.

Cerda calls camp "one of the few true exclusively LGBTQ art forms."

Ed Jones, center, plays house mother Edna Garrett in Hell in a Handbag's parody "The Facts of Life -- Satan's School for Girls." The production also features Alexa Castelvecchi, clockwise from bottom left, Robert Williams, Brenna L. Watkins, Max McKune, Graham Heacock and Katy Campbell as prep school students.
Ed Jones, center, plays house mother Edna Garrett in Hell in a Handbag's parody "The Facts of Life -- Satan's School for Girls." The production also features Alexa Castelvecchi, clockwise from bottom left, Robert Williams, Brenna L. Watkins, Max McKune, Graham Heacock and Katy Campbell as prep school students. - Courtesy of Rick Aguilar Studios

"People call us a gay theater company," Cerda said. "We're just a ridiculous theater company."

The ensemble, which Cerda affectionately refers to as the "island of misfit toys," includes LGBTQ and heterosexual theater artists.

How theater artists identify matters less than how well they handle comedy (which is hard) and parody (which is harder).

"It has to be grounded in reality," Cerda said. "You have to play it like it's Chekhov, but still find the humor in it."

                                                                                                                                                                                                                       
 

"Alexa gets it," he said of Castelvecchi.

Castelvecchi played Liza Minnelli in another Handbag production. That led to her ongoing role as Liza Minnelli opposite Nancy Hays' Judy Garland in the touring tribute show "Once in a Lifetime: Judy and Liza," a re-creation of the duo's 1964 London Palladium concert.

Alexa Castelvecchi
Alexa Castelvecchi

Castelvecchi says Handbag's theatrical style -- its embrace of big, bold moves -- is "a breath of fresh air."

"It's a great way to diversify yourself as an actor," she said.

• • •

"The Facts of Life -- Satan's School for Girls"

When: 7:30 p.m. Wednesday through Saturday and 5 p.m. Sunday, through Nov. 2

Where: Mary's Attic, 5400 N. Clark St., Chicago, (800) 838-3006 or handbagproductions.org

Tickets: $28-$44

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