- Santa Claus is looking for a good attorney. And he's got a slam-dunk case for defamation of character against a depraved playwright named Jeff Goode.

Goode's "The Eight: Reindeer Monologues" is one of the most manipulative and mean-spirited attacks on the institution of Christmas, its icons and traditions that you will ever see on a stage. While it's got its very funny moments, there's nothing funny about the way it shamelessly exploits the symbols Christians revere most to create an insidious allegory of sexual abuse in the workplace.

In the horrid animal kingdom of "The Eight," Santa is a bestial sexual predator who has been raping his elite team of reindeer employees for years. Santa personally selected Donner, Prancer and Co. to become stars in return for just one night of work a year - Christmas Eve. For the other 364 days, they bask in their international celebrity and cower in private fear of their master's attacks. But none would ever dare rat out the most powerful man in the world.

Until now. Now one brave victim, the voluptuous Vixen, is standing up to him, triggering a scandal that has left poor disfigured and demented Rudolph confined to a padded room in the rubber forest. As happens in real life, Vixen finds herself and her sexual history put on trial, and as happens in real life, she worries whether anyone will believe her word against that of a beloved public figure.

I hate, I mean really hate, the perverse game that Goode is playing here. The playwright is a talented wordsmith who obviously has some deep and painful experience in these areas. But rather than trust his ability to tell an important, topical human story of workplace intimidation and sexual harassment on its own terms, he implicates a Catholic saint, the father of Christmas, purely to maximize his otherwise ordinary story's shock value. So Santa's a predator? Yes, the notion sickens me, but that only means Goode is an effective provocateur. That's not earned indignation. That's a cheat.

That said, I didn't hate the Theatre Group's unnerving new "holiday offering" at the Phoenix Theatre. In fact I walked out afterward feeling a great appreciation for four of the most astonishing acting performances of the year.

"The Eight" was written as eight monologues for five male and three female actors, each portraying a different deer giving his or her take on life with Santa - a life that includes molestation, incest and pedophilia.

The Theatre Group has instead cast four remarkable actresses, each of whom portrays two reindeer. Four is better than eight for the audience, too, because it allows us to appreciate the magnificent contrast of their performances. Unfortunately they are made to sport distracting, silly antlers, when the whole point is supposed to be bringing out their very recognizable human characteristics.

The versatile C. Kelly Leo plays the hypermilitaristic, fatigue-wearing bad boy Dasher and the dizzy Dancer, whose only concern is why reindeer don't ever get a Christmas Eve off. The consistently excellent Jessica Austgen plays the "only openly gay boy reindeer" Cupid and the reformed, Fallwell- esque Santa apologist Comet ("those elves were towel boys in an Irish brothel when Santa found them").

Karen Slack plays a Norma Desmond-like diva deer named Hollywood (Prancer, before they made a movie about her) and Donner, Rudolph's guilt-ravaged father. And Jadelynn L. Stahl is the feminist Blitzen, who is organizing a reindeer walkout before bringing the night to a morose end as the aforementioned Vixen.

These four are an all-star team. Stahl is a ringer for a young Julianna Margulies, and her climactic monologue ends the evening with overwhelming sadness. But the best of the best is Slack as Donner, who enters dressed like a lumberjack, pulling a wagon of wood. He explains what it was like raising Rudolph, who was considered the Tiny Tim of reindeer with his deformed red nose, and what it meant for Santa to take him away and place him at the front of the elite team. It sounds absurd, but it's a powerful piece of writing, and movingly performed, akin to the confession a parent might make after entrusting a child to a priest or coach and discovering that trust to have been misplaced.

Co-directors Steven Tangedal and Nick Sugar deserve praise for putting "The Eight" on at all. It was a rushed replacement for the previously slated "Compleat Works of Shakespeare (Abridged)," which was dropped after the rights were rescinded because of an approaching tour. "The Eight" was performed at the Phoenix four years ago under the direction of Gillian McNally, but there is absolutely nothing in the latest production to indicate it had less than a full development process.

It's not my cup of holiday cheer, but I don't think I've ever enjoyed a play so much that I have so thoroughly despised. If mind games are on your Christmas list, this gift is for you.

The Eight: Reindeer Monologues

*** (out of 4 stars)

Written by: Jeff Goode

Directed by: Steven Tangedal and Nick Sugar

Starring: C. Kelly Leo, Jessica Austgen, Karen Slack, Jadelynn L. Stahl

Presented by: Theatre Group

Where: Phoenix Theatre, 1124 Santa Fe Drive

When: 7:30 p.m. Fridays and Saturdays through Dec. 21; added performance Dec. 9

Running time: 85 minutes with no intermission

Tickets: $20 (303-777-3292)

Warning: Not recommended for children under 17