December 15, 2009

Don't bother playing these 'Reindeer' games

By John Staton, Star-News, Wilmington, N.C.

HOLIDAY IRREVERENCE -- spiked, of course, with a generous dollop of Christmas cheer -- is something we've come to expect. But "The Eight: Reindeer Monologues" by Jeff Goode, a play being staged by Guerilla Theatre at the Brown Coat Pub & Theatre, takes an awkward turn into holiday crudeness.

Aside from a few laughs and some skilled performances, it's the feel-bad hit of the holiday season.

In the play, four actors perform two monologues each as Santa's sleigh-pulling reindeer -- Dasher, Dancer, Prancer, Vixen, Comet, Cupid, Donner and Blitzen. They've been reimagined by Goode as "The Eight" and retain mythic status in the play's fictional reindeer universe.

Now for the icky part. Santa has also been reimagined -- as a child-and-reindeer molesting monster. Or, as flamboyantly gay reindeer Cupid (Tony Moore) puts it, "a walking, talking, holly-jolly sex crime." Unfortunately, what we have here is a play in which sexual abuse is occasionally, but not always, played for laughs.

The central conceit of the show has Vixen accusing Santa of rape. This means that all eight reindeer -- save Rudolph, described by Comet as "a deformed, retarded little reindeer buck," who is often referenced but never seen -- have been taken to a police interrogation room to give their conflicting versions of what went down.

Goode's D-grade script is unable to blend tonal elements that range from light comedy to maudlin melodrama, and it's too bad, really, because "The Eight" does attempt to deal with serious subjects. Rape, molestation, sexual harassment and the like have horrific consequences that are worth writing about. But transferring the problem onto the backs of reindeer minimizes and makes ridiculous the problem it purports to deal with.

At least the acting is generally good and there are a few laughs along the way. Moore nails the good-natured obliviousness of the not-so-bright Dancer, who waxes poetic about the joys of "a deer pas de duex." Richard Davis gets the show off to a promising start with his portrayal of Dasher, a street-smart reindeer who's led the team every year "except for that one foggy Christmas Eve." And Susan Auten does an excellent job as two distinct characters, burning with righteous anger as Blitzen, one of Santa's main detractors, and receding into a hardened-but-on-the-right-path edge as the pious, in-recovery Comet, who wears a "Santa Saves" T-shirt.

Still, the script, with its wild swings in tone, makes things difficult for the actors, not to mention the audience. Also, since the cast members direct each other (Moore directs Auten, Auten directs Moore, and the Davises, Richard and wife Amber, who plays Prancer and Vixen, direct each other), there's a lack of cohesion that comes with having four different visions.

Still, I'm not convinced that one director could've come up with something good out of this play, which tries to be important but is ultimately trivial and, at times, truly cheap and smarmy.

Not the way you want to feel at Christmastime, or ever.

John Staton: 343-2343

On @StarNewsPlay

Copyright (c) 2009, Star-News, Wilmington, N.C.