Baltimore CityPaper

Baltimore CityPaper - December 5-11, 2001

Prancing and Pawing

Review By Anna Ditkoff

The Audrey Herman Spotlighters Theatre does double duty this holiday season with a musical adaptation of Charles Dickens' A Christmas Carol called Ebenezer! and a decidedly darker late-night offering, The Eight: Reindeer Monologues. While Ebenezer! does a respectable job rehashing Our Mutual Holiday-Theater Friend, The Eight is the real standout in this lineup.

Ebenezer! , written by local playwright Bryan Zocher with music and lyrics by PS Lorio and Linda Lee Bennett, gets off to a strong start with an almost word-for-word reading of Dickens' introduction to his holiday novel, including his frequently deleted rumination on the phrase "dead as a doornail." Unfortunately, this faithfulness to the original isn't continued throughout the play, with 18 songs and truncated dramatic scenes competing for attention.

Noel Schively has real presence as the wrath-filled Scrooge, but the palpable dramatic tension his characterization builds is repeatedly defused by the musical numbers, which look cramped on the Spotlighters' tiny stage and are pretty trite to boot (the one exception being Scrooge's amusingly grumpy "Bah! Humbug!"). The rest of the cast takes a back seat to Schively, but Bill Henry's Ghost of Christmas Present is delightful, and Ryan Murphy is charismatic as both Bob Cratchit and young Scrooge. Lisa Swann's Ghost of Christmas Past, however, is stilted, and many of the other ensemble members give similarly awkward performances.

Director Deborah Newman has difficulty dealing with the staging problems inherent in a theater-in-the-round with four load-bearing (and view-blocking) pillars. Actors often turn in circles to give each side of the house a view, and important visuals, like the eerie children Want and Ignorance beneath the Ghost of Christmas Present's cloak, are completely obscured from certain seats. Still, Zocher's crisp script and Schively's lively performances make Ebenezer! a fresh and easy-to-take variation on A Christmas Carol convention.

If you're looking for something completely different, check out Jeff Goode's The Eight: Reindeer Monologues, a thought-provoking and thoroughly engaging look at child molestation, rape, and family dysfunction told exclusively from the perspective of Santa Claus' reindeer. Yes, it sounds terrible--grownups in antlers making jokes about Claymation holiday specials, Kris Kringle's fetish for having kids on his lap, and Mrs. Claus' drinking problem. But while there is plenty of Christmas-fueled humor, the heart of the play is universal--eight very different characters dealing with the secrets, loyalties, and lies of a particularly strange family. Odd as it may sound, writing for reindeer frees Goode from the usual conventions of the dysfunction drama, allowing him to tackle difficult issues intelligently and intriguingly.

The Eight's herd.

True to the title, the play consists of a series of monologues as Dasher, Dancer, Prancer--now nicknamed Hollywood, thanks to his namesake 1989 movie--Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner, and Blitzen give their takes on Vixen's allegation that Santa raped her. Each reindeer has a very different perspective. Dasher (Archie Williams Jr.) and Dancer (Ina Hamburger) try to stay clear of the intrigues and focused on their jobs. Stereotypically gay Cupid (Bill Hardy) uses giddy humor to mask his discomfort. Hollywood (Jayson Fricke) paints Vixen as a fame whore. Jessica Conway's Blitzen straightforwardly addresses Santa's sins with passionate indignation. Former cokehead Comet (Wayne Willinger) credits Santa for his reformation and gives the old elf complete allegiance, until a childlike tantrum betrays his conflicted feelings. And Donner (Rudolph Bond), Rudolph's father, is tortured by the shame and guilt of an old family secret.

Each monologue offers greater insight into this warped collective and Santa's tendency toward reindeerphilia, building to Vixen's climactic soliloquy, which is made all the more powerful by Leslie Wieczorek's fierce, deeply sympathetic performance. Indeed, the actors brings such depth and feeling to their roles that you almost forget they're wearing bright red antlers, and director Caroline Summers keeps the often frantic goings-on emotionally grounded. When you've seen one too many cutesy Christmas specials, check out The Eight for a unique and stirring look at the holidays.