Orange County Register - November 25, 2005

Turning Santa On His Ear

Anaheim staging puts an adult spin on the flying team

by Eric Marchese, O.C. Register

November 25, 2005

With so much of comedy dependent upon goring sacred cows, "The Eight: Reindeer Monologues" should be a scream - for are any icons as sacred as Santa Claus?

In his 1994 script, playwright Jeff Goode (rhymes with "mood") frames St. Nick as a hypocrite whose untainted public image masks a predilection for sexual encounters with the female reindeers in his employ. After Santa has forced himself upon her, Vixen becomes the first of his victims to go public, touching off a firestorm of controversy.

Goode's comedy is structured as a series of monologues by each of the eight reindeer made famous in the pop song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer," allowing Goode to satirize without mercy normally untouchable holiday myths and other aspects of American society.

In his Chance Theater Repertory Company staging, director Josh Costello shows his affinity for Goode's stinging humor. A year ago, Costello helmed the Chance staging of "Reindeer," and although most of the same actors are back in the same roles, this is a new interpretation, keeping much of what made the 2004 production fly while upping the ante with a fresh perspective on the material.

Goode's text is coarse, crude, vulgar and sidesplitting, peppered with topical references specific enough to be funny, yet not bound by current events - jabs at big media, big business, the legal profession and more.

In Costello's hands, each reindeer is as complex as any human, each monologue gradually building to an apex of anger or indignation. All eight performers are given identical makeup: shiny black nose, red cheeks, floppy ears and, in the case of the bucks, antlers. This year, nearly every reindeer does his or her part to help decorate the large onstage Christmas tree, creating continuity between scenes.

Dasher (Casey Long), the "first reindeer" on the sleigh team, sets the stage. Of all the North Pole's reindeer, he tells us, the eight are "the elite," expected to tough it out each Christmas Eve, even if it means "flying into the side of a skyscraper that wasn't there a year ago." In his NASCAR-style getup, Long lends the character a down-home, macho delivery and blunt manner that are refreshingly direct.

In a monologue that closely resembles a raunchy stand-up routine, Cupid, the team's "only openly gay reindeer," labels Santa a "a greasy, fat wife-beater" and Christmas that most dysfunctional of holidays. The character gets a cheerful and (literally) gay reading by Jason Sechrest, with exaggeratedly effeminate mannerisms and a braying cackle that turns the character into a sort of demented donkey.

Doe Blitzen (Alex Bueno) gives us the perspective of a militant feminist. In flak jacket and jackboots, armed to the teeth with weaponry, she's confident there's no question, she says, that Vixen was raped by "the jolly fat pervert." Whether barking "when a doe says no, she means no!" or sprinkling gasoline all over the tree, preparing to set it afire, Bueno's tough-guy posturings are among the show's peaks. By contrast, Sarah Moreau's Dancer is a former ballerina, an innocent Suzy Homemaker type who informs us, in a squeaky, cartoony voice, that on-the-job rape amounts to "hazardous working conditions" for the does - though she could never formally indict Kris Kringle's lewd behavior.

Heather Howe's testimony as Vixen, "the world's most famous victim," forms the show's dramatic climax, as Vixen relates how Santa long fantasized about having sex with her before acting. Howe's portrayal is funny and poignant as Vixen can scarcely contain her fury over the double standard that finds Santa beyond reproach while implying her complicity.

Though no less entertaining, not all the monologues directly support or refute Vixen's charges. A shirtless, martial-arts pants-clad Comet (Carter Mason) confesses his former antics as a wild frat boy before being rescued by Santa, his attempts at playing character witness for Santa comically misguided (the two share a love of excess). Pete Caslavka's "Hollywood," (aka Prancer) is a film-capital pretty boy who scorns the annual Claymation Rudolph TV special while hyping his own live feature film, getting laughs with a Michael J. Fox-like voice and increasingly suggestive poses for a tripod-mounted still camera. Richard Comeau plays Donner, a fired herd deer with a bad back given a spot on the team as a way to help son Rudolph, with a deadpan Sad Sack manner, his emotional confession driven by the despair felt by any parent of a mentally challenged child.

This is more or less a bare-bones staging framed by Costello's re-envisioning of the script, Howe's imaginative costumes and eight performances that are, from the standpoint of satire, right on target - and a refreshing rejoinder to the many syrupy holiday plays that glut the theater scene this time of year.