What do you get when you smash together “Flash Gordon” serials with intergalactic alien orgies and hidden emotional trauma? You get “I Promised Myself To Live Faster” as presented by Hell in a Handbag Productions, written by Greg Moss and Pig Iron Theatre Company and directed by JD Caudill. Playing in the Chopin Theater’s downstairs space, the two rows of horizontal seating maximize the amount of room for head-turning action. (Get there early, grab a middle seat and avoid a stiff neck.)
Tim (Robert Williams) is a mild-mannered Earthling who can barely get out of bed after a breakup with his boyfriend, but is soon abducted by lesbian space nuns (Kim Boler, Caitlin Jackson, Taylor Dalton) with painted white faces, sparkling nun’s habits and neon-colored tulle skirts. Tim is “the chosen one,” “The Homosexual,” finder of the Holy Gay Flame that, if extinguished, would mean the end of all gay persons present and future. Using Tim as gaydar, they traverse the universe on a (I kid you not) two-headed, cosmic-powered, rainbow unicorn shaped like a giant Slinky.
After a skirmish with an alien vessel, Tim is stranded in a world inhabited by a race of warmongers and homophobes whose goal is to extinguish the Flame. Tim is captured by Bishop Ah-Ni (David Cerda), a lookalike of “Flash Gordon”’s Ming the Merciless, who brandishes a phallic-shaped gun and a diamond-encrusted codpiece. Ah-Ni is flamboyant, prissy, quick to anger, has eyes that linger over Tim’s glistening body… But he’s definitely not gay! Together, they go off in search of the Flame, but will Ah-Ni have a change of heart, or will he commit a betrayal most foul?
Up until now, the show has been nonstop outlandishness, but a deeper meaning begins to seep in. Ah-Ni is a metaphor for every macho, anti-gay authoritarian who is unable to come to terms with their own homosexuality and in turn compensate by harming other gay people. “But I have a wife and two kids? How can I be gay?” shouts Ah-Ni. “I don’t know,” says Tim surveying Ah-Ni’s outfit and mannerisms, “This all looks pretty gay to me!”
While the premise is simple, the execution is luscious and extravagant, with a handmade feel. During an intergalactic space orgy, Ah-Ni and Tim are joined by a dozen other aliens. Each one is uniquely designed with costumes by Beth Laske Miller and Rachel Sypniewski, along with puppetry by Lolly Extract and Jabberwocky Marionettes. Angler-like phosphorescent fish float through the air. Five-foot-long worms rear up their bulbous, ugly heads. A skinny green stalk on two legs sprouts wiggly, pink tentacles. And then they all start fucking! They really go at it! I can’t remember the last time an amorous tentacled cactus made me blush this hard.
The writing is an extravaganza of references for geeks of all kinds. Tim dons a silver version of a costume inspired by Red Sonja from “Conan The Barbarian” comics. An encounter with a reverse-aging alien called Movie Star Boy (Tyler Anthony Smith) leads into an impassioned monologue composed entirely of silver-screen movie references—Humphrey Bogart, James Cagney, Rita Hayworth. If they ever made a gay version of “Futurama,” this would make a great pilot episode.
Campy, over-the-top and overtly sexual—seriously, everything is shaped like a phallus—“I Promised Myself To Live Faster” contains clearly defined characters that take the business of goofiness seriously. Underneath the fanfare lies a touching story of a person dealing with depression; lessons are learned without having to spell them out, they just seep into you. Hell in a Handbag Productions have proven again that they can take material that is out of this world and present it in a grounded way.
“I Promised Myself To Live Faster” presented by Hell in a Handbag Productions at the Chopin Theatre, 1543 West Division. Tickets are $42 general admission ($25 Thursday special) or $61 for VIP reserved seating with drink ticket, handbagproductions.org. Runs through May 7.