December 3, 2009
Jeff Goode's wickedly satirical 1994 script has lost none of its topicality, chock-full of references to pop-culture, show business, a gossip-hungry mass media and, of course, the over-commercialization of all things Christmas.
Maybe it's director Oanh Nguyen's handling of the script that does it. This is the Anaheim Hills theater's sixth go-round with "The Eight," yet Nguyen manages to find new ways to surprise his audiences, whether through a new wrinkle to the now-familiar script or fresh line readings by new (or newer) cast members.
Another difference with this year's production is that the entire cast numbers 16, with eight backup performers randomly filling in for the primary cast.
The story arc of Goode's text is simple: Led by Dasher (Casey Long), each of the eight reindeer on Santa's starting team – "the most prestigious reindeer in the world" – gives his or her version of the scandalous rape of doe Vixen (Zoe Simpson) by Kris Kringle, culminating in Vixen's own firsthand account of things.
"Rashomon"-like, our views of Santa Claus depend on the source – a "greasy, fat wife-beater"; a much-maligned hero; "libidinous troll of a man"; life-altering altruist; sleazy exploiter of his reindeer and elf employees. All of Goode's jabs are sharply satirical, but he seems especially critical of the way Christmas has turned into a multi-billion dollar industry.
Obviously sanctioned by Goode, the cast members deliver comedic riffs and bits of improv on his text, giving the evening the feeling of a nightclub act while augmenting the script's salty, raunchy tone. The resulting show may not be politically correct, but that doesn't mean it isn't screamingly funny.
All eight performers have mittens for paws and delicate black tips for noses, with antlers for the guy reindeer characters and large ears for the women. Costume pieces and accessories individualize each character, whether a bright green scarf (Dancer) or a black leather clutch handbag (Cupid).
Much of the humor lies in Goode's anthropomorphism of the beloved reindeer. Long's Dasher is a good-old-boy trucker whose delivery is both laconic and vehement. Dimas Diaz's Cupid is a swishy, limp-wristed, giggling gay in cutoff shorts and colorful striped kneesocks.
Melanie Gable's Dancer persona is an apologetic, prim and proper, cheerfully oblivious New Yorker, her voice lilting ð la Streisand. Alex Bueno's Comet is a Chicano gang member with a black mustache and a heavy accent that turns j's into y's and vice-versa. And so forth.
There are laughs a-plenty in Dasher's ego bruising at the hands of Rudolph, Cupid's urban Puerto Rican street smarts and Dancer's wide-eyed naivete. The staging's momentum begins to flag in the the middle segments (Blitzen and Comet) before picking up again.
Easily the most consistently funny segment is Dean Chance's portrayal of Prancer, known to his peers as "Hollywood" for his career as a movie star.
Critical of the film industry and insulted by the success of Rudolph's annual animated special, Chance's Prancer is a sulking, rage-filled, tantrum-throwing superstar who gives great lines like "No deer has ever been nominated for an Academy Award" a special comedic snap.
More melancholy are the closing monologues by Lewis Crouse as Rudolph's dad, Donner, and Zoe Simpson as the much-slandered Vixen. With his red shirt, checkered coat and salt-and-pepper hair and beard, Crouse is a raspy-voiced, cigar-chomping man-in-the-street who refers to himself as "a miserable failure" yet was able to ride his son's glowing red nose all the way to the bank.
At play's end, Vixen is finally given a platform. In a sexy black outfit with gray fleece wrist muffs, the slender Simpson is all Hollywood starlet and Playboy centerfold, with heavy doses of Valley Girl.
While Simpson's character is catty, she's also heavily sympathetic, as the entire world questions her motives in suing Santa Claus for sexual harassment. Her segment is comical but also sobering, ending the night on a caustic note.
Somehow, one has to imagine that Goode would be pleased.
'The Eight: Reindeer Monologues'
When: Through Dec. 19. 8 p.m. Tuesdays-Wednesdays, 11 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays
Where: The Chance Theater, 5552 E. La Palma Ave., Anaheim Hills
How much: $22-$30
Length: 1 hour, 10 minutes (no intermission)
Suitability: Adults and teens (for language and content)