Theater Review - Reindeer games

Christmas spoof is darker than a lump of coal

Whole World Theatre’s The Eight: Reindeer Monologues imagines a sex scandal at the North Pole, but it doesn’t spoof Christmas with holiday cheer. Instead, playwright Jeff Goode offers an angry allegory in which Yuletide icons accuse each other of sexual abuse, harassment and exploitation. The play includes giddy bits of satire, but the script goes to a very dark place and strands the audience there.

Like the title suggests, The Eight presents monologues from the reindeer that pull Santa’s sleigh. They’re all there: Dasher, Donner, Blitzen, Dancer, Comet, Cupid, Vixen and ... Hollywood. (More on him later.) The actors wear felt novelty antlers, but otherwise dress in “human” apparel consistent with their characters’ personalities.

For instance, senior reindeer Dasher (Dave Green) comes across as a Texan Alpha Male in boots, puffing on a stinky cigar. The smell of smoke permeates Whole World’s modest Third Space theater as if the show has Odorama.

Dasher refers to the reindeer as “The Eight,” as though they’re an elite, prestigious group on a par with the Secret Service agents who guard the U.S. president. He speaks dismissively of accusations made by Vixen against Santa Claus and expresses fierce loyalty to tradition. Flamboyantly gay reindeer Cupid (John Thomas Chatham) takes an opposite tact, gossiping about the sex lives of his reindeer colleagues, as well as Mr. and Mrs. Claus. “That man has been a walking, talking holly-jolly sex crime waiting to happen,” he says of Santa.

Each monologue has a different setting: Cupid chats at a gay disco while Hollywood (superficially played by Andrew Clark Aslakson) talks during a movie. He was formerly known as Prancer, but the 1989 holiday flick of the same name went to his head and turned the reindeer into a vain, puffed-up movie star. It’s an obscure joke to hang the monologue on.

Blitzen (Kara Stark) makes a statement to the press like a protest activist, and has some of the play’s cleverest lines. She asks, “Why are we all treated like livestock?” and wonders why the reindeer go out on Christmas Eve wearing nothing but leather straps and jingle bells. Blitzen’s monologue draws parallels to the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas case, but also reveals that Santa’s alleged misdeeds go further than harassment, to areas that prove too serious to joke about.

The Eight’s last two monologues serve as portraits of despair. Washed-up Donner (Neil Huber) talks about being father to disabled Rudolph, who fell prey to Santa’s unwholesome attentions with tragic results. Vixen (Rachel Richardson) talks about being “the world’s most famous victim,” and how her accusation has led to a humiliating media frenzy. Richardson proves surprisingly affecting, touching on the genuine pain of being a maltreated, “dehumanized” sex symbol.

The Eight evokes recent scandals involving the Catholic Church and Michael Jackson, and explore individual helplessness in the face of a powerful, beloved but corrupt institution. Such heavy material casts a pall over the zany talking-animal premise. You sense that director Thomas Boyd (who also plays Comet, an ex-gang member) makes an effort to lighten up the show where possible. Most of the musical cues are peppy, non-holiday pop — most fittingly, “Bad” by Michael Jackson.

Most of the actors provide the simplest possible interpretations of their roles, who despite being flying, talking reindeer, have human emotions and traits. We still empathize with the characters, keeping The Eight: Reindeer Monologues from having the ironic distance you want in a comedy. Instead, it’s a play that wants to inspire bad associations with Christmas, so that worse things than sugarplums dance in your head.