- December 5, 2003

The Eight: Reindeer Monologues at Open Circle Theatre
Reviewed by Robbie Wachs

Perhaps I have a little too much coal in my stocking, but I just can't get into the holiday offerings that I am bombarded with every year. This years choices have ranged from wannabe Rockettes to Christian allegory, with each theatre hoping to capitalize on the sentimental feelings that audience members are likely to want to experience at Christmas. For those who frown on this sort of thing, you usually get a theatrical break for a few months. Luckily, Open Circle Theatre has chosen to present Jeff Goode's The Eight: Reindeer Monologues, which offers a delicious spin on Santa and those attached to his sled. And with a mostly standout cast, this production offers a tasty drink on an otherwise nog-less plateful of holiday beverages.

Goode's script is really more psychological study than holiday show. When Vixen accuses Santa of raping her, the world is turned on its side, as the bearer of Christmas cheer is slowly revealed to be jolly in places other than his belly. If you think this is "weird stuff", you'd be right. However, this "stuff" is also compelling, riveting, and brilliant theatre, whether it be Christmastime or any other time of the year. Through the eight confessionary monologues, Goode slowly skews our minds on what is true and what is false. He takes a saintly childhood character, and proposes the idea that a hero can be flawed. Goode's asset is his ability to distort the comical into the dramatic. A key example is in the play's portrayal of Rudolph. He is at first described as a bumbling idiot, then as mentally retarded, and finally revealed to be a victim of Santa's cruel treatment. Each monologue is chalk full of tension and humor, resulting in a poignant and horrific finale. The playwright has created eight uniquely different reindeer, ranging from a catty homosexual to a bitter feminist to recovering drug addict. The mind is constantly asked to shift, as information is constantly confirmed and denied throughout.

The eight performances in this production range from weak to powerful. While the piece has a rough start, it greatly improves as the evening unfolds. The material increases in quality from monologue to monologue, as do the performances from actor to actor.

As Donner, Aaron Allshouse has the task of presenting the play's key exposition, and is more writing device than actual character. While Goode has fleshed out the other seven reindeer, Donner isn't as interesting or complex as the others. Allshouse is effective in setting the stage for the plot, but unsuccessful in creating a character as layered as those that follow him. Travis Bruggeman has all of Cupid's emotions right, but simply needs to be reigned in and toned down. His performance mostly consists of flailing, broad gestures, and the most unfortunate pants I have seen on a reindeer or human being. I am not sure of Bruggman's actual sexual status, but he makes an unconvincing homosexual, playing the stereotype rather than the reality. His performance is particularly troublesome when you look at the play as a whole, as the other seven actors favor dark subtleties over his bright generalizations.

The piece really comes alive with Dusty Warren's acidic delivery of Hollywood (formerly Prancer), the jaded reindeer. With a tracksuit, a water bottle, and a stationary bike as his aides, Warren stages the most comic monologue to its utmost potential. I have seen this particular monologue performed frequently, with actors who tend to play things big. Mr. Warren takes a dryer road, favoring intricacy over the typical route of hamminess that is usually traveled. His best moment features a reenactment of his performance in the film "Prancer", laying on his side and moaning in pain. He is followed by Sibyl Darling's Blitzen, who adds a welcome female voice to the so-far male voiced accounts. Darling manages to underplay the harder aspects of the character, never making the feminist opinions seem too extreme. She ranges from fiery to subdued, effectively showing the anger and confusion that the event has brought. Ted Dowling exhibits raw energy and anger as Comet, giving a performance that is wild and precise simultaneously. He also seamlessly handles the play's big shift from dark to darker, as he presents the possibility that Vixen's allegations could possibly be false. This contrasts well with Darling's preceding work, and adds a nice parallel.

The performance of the evening belongs to Marty Mukhalian, whose Dancer is one of the most complex, unique, and stylish creations I have ever seen on stage. Her ability to tell a story is unrivaled, as she draws you in with her deep eyes. Mukhalian is eerily similar to Audrey Hepburn, channeling her in both appearance and voice. A wine glass that she constantly sips from adds texture to a flawlessly rich performance.

With the unenviable task of following Ms. Mukhalian, Skot Kurruk is strong as Donner, Rudolph's father. His exitbits sorrow and pain, smoking his way through a detailed and subtle performance. His bodywork is striking, as he scrunches himself up in a chair, revealing a man who is racked with the guilt of silence. As Vixen, Shannon Layden doesn't disappoint, reinforcing and destroying notions that are created through the other monologues. Layden's performance walks a nice line between accusatory and confessionary, as she cycles through various emotions until she reaches the play's startling and appropriate conclusion.

With mostly spectacular performances, The Eight: Reindeer Monologues is a powerful evening. However, it could have thrived even more with stronger direction. Jose' Amador has his actors pacing about an awful lot, which becomes repetitive quickly. Perhaps Mukhalian and Kurruk's performances are standouts because they are also the stillest. It is often a habit for directors to attempt to layer their work with fancy blocking and flashy gimmicks. Amador has nothing to worry about, as he has cast a group of actors who are more than capable of delivering interesting performances with minimal blocking. The fluid movement throughout the stage often prevents the intimacy of these confessionary tales from fully developing.

Small complaints aside, The Eight: Reindeer Monologues is probably the smartest holiday offering available in Seattle. Although completely offensive to the conservative crowd, the more cynical theatergoers of this town will be refreshed by this warm sip of holiday sneer.