Playback St. Louis - December 2004
The Plays the Thing
The Eight: Reindeer Monologues
By Jeff Goode
December 16-18, 2004
You would think that St. Louis audiences might have learned by now to turn off their cell phones in the theater. So when the jangling of someone's phone stopped the action in the middle of Hydeware Theatre's performance of The Eight: Reindeer Monologues, which ran recently at The Spot, I would have expected the offending patron to turn it off quickly. But when it kept ringing in the middle of JC Pierce's monologue (as Comet, the bad seed of Santa's crew), Dancer, played by Emily Strembicki, leaned forward and asked, "Is that for me? I'm expecting a call." Her ad-lib provoked laughter from the audience, and Pierce can be forgiven for lapsing briefly out of character following the interruption; the owner of the cell phone, though, should get coal in his or her stocking this year.
The same could be said of playwright Jeff Goode, who has used an extremely unlikely premise to craft a dubious satire on pop culture's fascination with high-profile criminal cases, reality TV, and on-the-edge talk shows: Scandal has swept through the North Pole after Vixen (Leah Schumacher) accuses Santa of sexual assault and two other reindeer threaten to walk off the team in solidarity. As each reindeer makes his or her case for or against Santa, other tawdry secrets come to light involving Santa's relationship with Rudolph, an alcoholic Mrs. Claus, and more sexual innuendo than you can shake an antler at. (Try picturing Mrs. Claus going to the company Christmas party in gold body paint, pasties, and wearing a screaming elf as a thong. Thankfully, this spectacle is only mentioned and never seen, but still-not pretty.)
There are strong performances throughout. They include Brian Hyde as the swift (but not terribly bright) Dasher, who stands by Santa in spite of the mountain of evidence against him. Pierce is also convincing as a bad buck turned good thanks to St. Nick's intervention after Comet was shot in a liquor store robbery; he too stands by the guy with the bowl of jelly for a belly, and points out that before Santa, the elves were towel boys in an Irish brothel. Prancer has morphed into a prima donna named Hollywood, portrayed by Pamela Banning just this side of caricature (albeit a funny one at that) who is still miffed that her star was eclipsed by that Rudolph thing. Dancer as portrayed by Strembicki is a ditzy, Jewish doe who used to be a ballet instructor and wonders if they're still supposed to work when the 24th falls on Hanukkah.
The standout role has to be the evangelical Blitzen, played with fire and spirit by Ember Hyde. She's outspoken in her support of the victimized Vixen; she's clearly taken a page from the Rev. Al Sharpton's hymnal around the time of the Tawana Brawley scandal. Perhaps the only performance that falls short is Russell James's over-the-top, stereotypical portrayal of Cupid, the only openly gay member of the reindeer crew. What should be funny just ends up sounding tired.
With so many excellent performances, it's a shame that the play itself is a problem. It's almost as if Goode couldn't make up his mind whether he was going to go for the laughs (of which there are many in the first half) or choose to issue an indictment of the public's appetite for scandal. In the middle of the show, he seems to decide to trade the former for the latter (which leads to a gut-wrenching monologue by Tyson Blanquart as Rudolph's father Donner), but that's a big mistake: at that point, it's as if the play breaks its deal with the audience, and not only that, but makes the audience feel guilty for laughing in the first place. And using the Christmas story as a vehicle for this is a questionable choice at best, and a stunning lapse of taste and judgment at worst.
In this case, it would be better to pass the bucks-and the does, too.