December 15, 2018
Most Christmas shows don't arrive with trigger warnings. But "The Eight: Reindeer Monologues," the gripping new one-act produced by Red Herring, comes by its warning honestly, as it moves from lightly snarky seasonal comedy into wrenching emotional territory.
Simultaneously playing off and moving far away from both the song "Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer" and the claymation television special from the sixties, "The Eight" lets each of the members of the original reindeer team a chance to take the spotlight, starting with macho leader Dasher (Michael Herring) and ending with troubled Vixen (Carolyn Demanelis), who, it gradually emerges, has accused Santa of rape. Each of the eight, whether flamboyant Cupid (Tom Murdock), feminist Blitzen (Tahrea Maynard) or reformed juvenile delinquent Comet (Mark Hale, Jr.) has his or her own interpretation of Santa and his character.
In this skewed version of the tale, Rudolph - who, like Santa, is never seen on stage - has undergone a metamorphosis that leaves him victim rather than hero.
Jeff Goode's play, directed with brisk energy by Mike Writtenberry, takes full advantage of the dark comedy of the premise to elicit nervous laughter from the audience.
The play, however, is intent on more than sophomoric shock value. Underneath the shenanigans is a sharply intelligent look at the potential for harm wielded by a powerful, respected figure.
First performed in 1994, the play for the most part is remarkably timely. One monologue, that of "Hollywood," (Kevin Tate), suffers from entertainment in-jokes and from the fact that the movie "Prancer" is little known today. But the rest of the play could be a fresh response to the #MeToo movement.
The play, darkening as it goes, moves towards two final monologues that pull the pieces of the puzzle together. Michael Moore is deeply affecting as Rudolph's guilt-ridden father Donner, and Demanelis believably complicated as conflicted Vixen.
In this production, it's the monologue that proceeds these two that creates the most complex portrait. Alli Hale gives a delicately bravura performance as self-deluded Dancer, who starts off as a comically ditsy stereotype and ends up something else entirely.
Steve Emerson's scruffy office set and Brian Palmer's amusing costumes, in which antlers are the only hint at reindeerhood, are appropriately unpretentious.
Red Herring is taking a risk by countering seasonal sentimentality with a disturbing examination of sexual assault and the dynamics of power. Those willing to take a chance on it will be rewarded with a psychologically rich and remarkably entertaining experience.