Chico News & Review - December 18, 2005

Fine Arts

The blight before Christmas

Brilliantly cast, beautifully acted, confrontational comedy casts a tattered pall of bitter laughter on the holiday

By Carey Wilson

DAMAGED GOODS Foreground, Isaiah Bent; standing (l-r), Paul Stout, Sheri Bagley and Jerry MIller; seated, Lanai in the Winter, Betty Burns and Jeff Dickenson, the cast of The Eight: The Reindeer Monologues.

The Eight: The Reindeer Monologues Chico Cabaret, Fri., Dec. 12
Shows Fri. and Sat., Dec. 19 and 20, 10:30pm.
The Eight: The Reindeer Monologues has a great absurdist premise for a piece of socially conscious post-modern theater: Create a sex scandal at Santa's North Pole workshop and have the eight reindeer of Santa's sleigh fame each present his or her perspective on the controversy through a series of witty monologues about jolly old Saint Nick and his mission to deliver the goods to all the girls and boys every Christmas Eve. Could/should be hilarious, right?

But playwright Goode has made the ratio of treacle to vitriol out of proportion even for a satirical black comedy, and the result is a deliberately uncomfortable experience for the audience. Not that challenging your audience is necessarily bad.

Setting a pitch-perfect tone of working-class dedication to duty is Dasher, exquisitely realized by an iron-pumping Jeff Dickenson. Dasher, who had led the team on countless Christmas Eve missions, is justifiably outraged that the fame of the hardworking reindeer team has been eclipsed by the one-shot leadership of Rudolf, whose big claim to fame is leading the team on one foggy eve. Are all the meteorological nightmares negotiated by the eight without Rudolf to be forgotten by a fickle public, he wants to know.

Cupid, played to the campy hilt by a cherubic Isaiah Bent, is a different matter entirely. His tales of holiday family horrors and explications of Santa's sexual proclivities are laced with wicked laughter, mostly at his over-the-top delivery of the flaming-fag stereotype.

And then there's Prancer--oops, I meant Hollywood--a sunglasses-wearing wheeler-dealer with a bottle of water in one hand and a cell phone in the other, played with an insider's gusto by Blue Room Artistic Director Joe Hilsee. Hollywood's tale is one of his and Vixen's career rivalry in his namesake town and career frustration with the overshadowing fame of the clay animation version of Rudolf's story. His slightly dated desire to pitch a treatment for an Ah-nuld/Prancer action flick provides an anachronistic chuckle.

The chuckles provided by Betty Burns' acidic portrayal of the lesbian, radical-feminist Blitzen are bitterer. "The reality that a jolly fat pervert is coming to town" to stage pedophilic home invasions under the guise of gift-giving fuels Blitzen's anger, and implications of the sex scandal at the heart of the play become overt as the comedy is pushed to the edge of outrage.

To simmer things down a bit, we are next treated to the wheedling sycophancy of Paul Stout's Comet, a barely recovering drunk, drug abuser and delinquent punk who, under the tough-love regime of St. Nick, has turned his life around. "The elves were towel boys in a Dublin brothel" when Santa found and rehabilitated them, Comet says. Accusals of perversion and rape should be overshadowed by acts of altruistic philanthropy, in Comet's book.

"Lanai in the Winter" (as she's named in the program) gives a take on Dancer as a self-absorbed commercial artiste. Obsessively concerned with contractual obligations, salary and benefits, she prattles on about the "subtle tail-work" required of reindeer ballerinas and dismisses Mrs. Claus's drinking and elf-hating as parts of the job that don't overly concern her.

Show Director Jerry Miller has fittingly given himself the meatiest male role, and he presents Donner as a downcast, working-class schlub seething with repressed guilt and rage. He's a simple guy whose dreams of a simple life with a decent job, a loving wife and lots of healthy offspring have been shattered by the birth of the "retarded and deformed" Rudolf, and he's a dad who has been bribed to ignore the sexual molestation of his child in order to keep his job. Funny, right?

But not quite as thigh-slappingly hilarious as Sheri Bagley's battered Vixen, a frowzy, aging sexpot with a black eye who just wants to get out of the Christmas biz and move to Florida and forget all about it. "Will it help. No," she concludes.

For connoisseurs of sick black humor this show will be a treat; for those who come in expecting a few light-hearted laughs at Santa's expense, it might prove a bitter pill to swallow.

Copyright 2005