New Zealand Herald
November 29, 2008

Tales of Santa behaving badly

A cult American Christmas comedy has been given a Kiwi makeover, writes Dionne Christian

Sipping Coke Zero from the bottle and clutching a colour-coded rehearsal schedule, actor-director Cameron Rhodes has an excited gleam in his eyes. It could be because Rhodes is steering a true cracker of a Christmas project, the likes of which have never been seen in Auckland before.

He is directing a version of American cult Christmas comedy The Eight: Reindeer Monologues using 40 actors, well-known and newcomers, to portray eight roles in 14 performances.

Michael Hurst, Oliver Driver, Antonia Prebble, Claire Chitham, Sara Wiseman, Shane Bosher, Edwin Wright, Madeleine Sami, Fleur Saville, Dean O'Gorman, Liesha Ward-Knox, Beth Allen, Bonnie Soper, Anna Jullienne, Harry McNaughton, Nisha Madhan and Sarah Thomson are among those who will don reindeer antlers and bring the monologues to life.

Who will perform on which night will not be advertised, meaning the audience never knows who is on stage next. "I can promise that on any given night, the cast will include an exciting newcomer, an experienced theatre veteran, a television star and a potluck addition," says Rhodes.

"Those who see the show may also be surprised to see which actors are playing what parts because many asked if they could play against type. We are even crossing gender boundaries."

Rhodes likens the rehearsal process to speed dating, saying each actor gets only two or three hours' rehearsal time with him. He is relying on their professionalism, and desire not to lose face in front of an audience, to be performance-ready.

"The cast are under no illusions of what's expected. Each monologue is fairly self-contained and, although there is a through-line, can be opened to a variety of interpretations."

Rhodes, who has won praise for his role in Kafka's The Trial (which ends tonight at the Aotea Centre), was not tempted to take a role. He wants to watch the performances to see how the actor combinations work and how each person makes it his or her own.

Written by Jeff Goode, The Eight - described as coarse, witty, vulgar and crude and intended only for mature audiences - was first performed by Chicago's Hidden Theatre Company in 1993.

Each year an increasing number of theatre groups - from small professional to college drama classes - have staged a version. Last year, 38 groups from California to Ireland programmed The Eight as a counter to the saccharine excesses of the Silly Season.

In The Eight, it is not the boys and girls who have to worry about their behaviour throughout the year, it is Santa who stands accused of decidedly un-Christmas like behaviour involving one of his reindeers.

With the North Pole toy workshop abuzz with gossip, the reindeers decide to go public with the accusations, revealing to the world what Santa really gets up to when he is not sitting in shopping malls or delivering gifts.

There are no happy elves, Mrs Claus is a lush and as for the reindeers - Dasher is a rugby jock, Cupid a gay toy-boy and Vixen, as the name suggests, is a sex-kitten. Rudolph is conspicuous by his absence.

Ordinarily each reindeer is portrayed by one actor for the entire season, meaning a cast of eight.

Writer Goode, from Los Angeles, says there has been some double-casting in previous productions but it has never been on the scale undertaken by Rhodes and the Auckland production team.

"This is the first time that doubling roles has been made a virtue of the production," he says. "I think it's very exciting, and it should work very well. What makes every production of The Eight unique is the motley band of characters each company assembles to represent the reindeer team. But the story does not turn on their specific character traits, so having an interchangeable cast will make it seem like a whole new show every night."

Goode issues regular script updates through his website, saying plays which deal with topical issues and want longevity must change with the world or risk becoming museum pieces.

"When I wrote The Eight in 1993, there was a line about Dasher flying head first into the side of the World Trade Center. Since September 11, 2001, that line has had a very different connotation so, when possible, I try to provide options to theatre companies when parts of a published script need to be updated."

He acknowledges that hardly a year goes by when someone doesn't invite him to a performance somewhere in the world. This year, he could take his pick from productions in America, Thailand or Auckland.

While Goode would enjoy seeing how the Auckland version works he doubts he could afford the airfare. But he suspects he will have opportunities to see The Eight for many years.

"Unfortunately, the human foibles that the play is about never seem to go away. There are always scandals, and there are always people handling the scandals badly. And as long as that continues to be true, The Eight will probably always find an audience."


What: The Eight: Reindeer Monologues
Where and when: The Basement, December 4-19