Matthew A. Everett - December 4, 2004

Babbling About Mistletoe and Penises : A review of THE EIGHT: REINDEER MONOLOGUES

The Eight: Reindeer Monologues by Jeff Goode
Ensemble Productions at the Bryant Lake Bowl

This has been an odd Christmas theater-going season for me. I’ve seen a only a small cross-section of the dozens of offerings out there but I’ve been present at shows that made me think about subjects as disparate as class struggle and inequity (A Christmas Carol at the Guthrie) and the war in Iraq (Christmas of Swing at the History Theater). And now, at the scrappy little Bryant Lake Bowl, Ensemble Productions presents me a show that delves into subjects like rape, child sexual abuse, bestiality and alcoholism, just to name a few - all out of the mouths of a cast of eight actors wearing antlers on their head. And it’s a comedy - and a very funny one at that.

Jeff Goode’s play “The Eight: Reindeer Monologues” is a crackling good piece of theater - a sharp script, well-directed, and performed by an ensemble that holds nothing back. It’s bracing, alternately hilarious and horrifying. The conceit is simple - each of the eight famous reindeer gets their turn to speak in radically different monologues that all add up to something much more than the sum of those eight parts. Each speech is, in essence, its own one-person show, a star turn for the actor involved, and none of them pass up the opportunity. The larger story unfolds a few clues at a time, accumulating over the course of the evening as one speech builds on the next. The show’s publicity image, of Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer in a straitjacket, might look as though it comes from one of those irreverent holiday cards, but it is also a clue that we’re headed for a dark place before the night is over. The reason Rudolph (who, like Santa, is never seen onstage) is in that straitjacket is “adults only” theater, but well worth your time to discover. It’s not a kids show, and it’s certainly not standard holiday fare (in fact, it takes on the trappings of a holiday show idea with the express purpose of completely subverting them) but it is, nonetheless, good theater.

The very best material comes, as perhaps it should, at the beginning and the end. The opening monologues from Dasher and Cupid, and the closing ones from Donner and Vixen, couldn’t be more diametrically opposed in tone and content if you tried, but they’re all equally great in their own individual ways.

Barry Patrick as Dasher starts the evening off on a strong note. He has to introduce us to this alternate universe where reindeer talk and the Christmas Eve flight is at once both the familiar stuff of holiday legend, and at the same time just a job - and a potentially dangerous one at that. For every amusing tale of crashing into a skyscraper that wasn’t there a year ago, there’s a hint of trouble at the North Pole, and injuries and even death on the job. Ultimately, Dasher shares with us his pride in a tough job done well, despite the obstacles and dangers. The Eight (as Santa’s team is called) is the reindeer equivalent of the Marines. There is no higher calling. Both a reluctant braggart as well as a reluctant witness, he gives us a hint of things to come - very funny, but with serious undertones.

Raising the bar as high as it will go for hilarity - and that’s mighty high - is Aaron Gabriel as Cupid. Cupid is as flamboyantly, openly gay as Dasher was “sports bar/frat boy” straight. Family and sexual dysfunction is played for laughs here, big laughs. Aaron Gabriel works the audience like a pro - a cross between a drag queen and a stand-up comedian - getting off some of the best lines of the night. In fact there were so many of them, coming so quickly one after another, that after the fact his performance is almost one big hilarious blur.

Both Dasher and Cupid are the kind of reindeer you wouldn’t mind spending more time and
having another drink with, whether that drink be a beer or something tall and fruity. On the opposite end of both the show and the spectrum are Donner and Vixen. Here is where the play goes from dark comedy to pitch black, which is actually not a bad thing. The one downside to a concept play such as this is that we know there are going to be eight speeches. If the audience gets impatient or loses interest, they start trying to think ahead to the end. There needs to be a big, preferably surprising, payoff. Thankfully, in this case, there is.

It would take some of the fun and the punch out of the play to reveal too much more, so I’ll try to skate around the edges of giving the whole game away.

The reason Jeff Huset as Donner works so well is that, despite the fact that the man - er, deer - has made some very bad parenting choices, you still feel for him. He did have his child’s future always in the front of his mind. Unfortunately, in trying to ensure a better life for his son than the one he himself had, Donner makes a deal with the devil that ends up ruining both of their lives.

George A. Keller as Vixen has it perhaps the hardest. Through the entire play, everyone else has been talking about her. She has some pretty big expectations to either live up to or live down. Keller’s performance exceeds all expectations. She asks the hard questions and makes the hard choices that provide the foundation on which the rest of the play is built. Vixen also leaves us with more questions unanswered, even as the central mysteries of the play are laid to rest. The audience is left with an uneasy feeling of their own complicity in the crimes that have been committed.

The middle quartet of monologues are more problematic. As my friend Dan is fond of saying, “This script could have benefited from a little judicious cutting.” With one exception, these speeches had one point to make, made it well, and then kept circling back and making it again, rather than growing and telling us something new. Sometimes they even felt like placeholders - it needs a monologue for each of the reindeer, so we’ll just have this one vamp for a little bit on the way to the big finish. In no case was any of this the performers’ fault. They each did their best with the material that was given them.

The exception to this dip in the middle section was Comet as played by Leah Cooper. Comet was a bad deer who saw the light. She has the fervor, and a little of the intolerance, one finds in the newly converted. Her defense of Santa, and some of the outlandish things she says about the people trying to bring him down, are a hoot at the very same time that they are also true to life. Comet’s recounting of her wilder days are equally entertaining. Her disdain for reindeer lesbianism (“doe to doe action”) is, second only to Cupid’s comedy routine, some of the funniest material of the evening. The mix of unquestioning faith and angry denial are a familiar combination that we’re seeing more and more in public discourse of moral issues. It was good to see this treated in a respectful, if not uncritical, manner. We could use more levelheaded explorations like this. (And if they were all this entertaining, that also couldn’t hurt).

The fact that this series of isolated, individual performances in which none of the actors actually have a scene together still feels like the best kind of ensemble work is a credit to the director Grif Sadow. He gives each of his actors a showcase in which to shine, but always keeps the larger picture in mind, so that all these monologues still add up to a single play with a powerful throughline. It’s no easy feat, and he makes it look effortless.

The “deer-in-the-headlights” moment with the full cast at the top of the curtain call was a welcome release through laughter at the end of a very dark comedy.

In a time of Michael Jackson mega-trials and a sexual abuse scandal within the priesthood of the Catholic church that never seems to end, thoughtful explorations of the abuse of power and celebrity are sorely needed. The fact that such a compelling (and entertaining) one arises from a play in which the cast is wearing antlers on their heads is pretty amazing.

Ensemble Productions’ presentation of “The Eight: Reindeer Monologues” continues at the Bryant Lake Bowl through December 23, 2004. It isn’t your standard holiday fare, but it’s not trying to be. It’s about something bigger, and more important. I highly recommend it.

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© Matthew A Everett