Creative Loafing Tampa Bay - November 29, 2006

Reindeer games

Santa gets sent up in a one-joke play stretched beyond its breaking point


Several years ago, National Lampoon magazine used to run sexually explicit parodies of family-oriented comic strips. So you might see Blondie and Dagwood doing it in the bedroom or Charlie Brown and Lucy getting it on near the psychiatrist's booth. And yes, it was shocking to see this sort of travesty, but the shock didn't last long; after a few short seconds, you smiled at the deliberate violation of newspaper icons, turned the page and moved on. There was nothing more to think about, no message, no deep significance. It was like hearing someone say "fuck" in the middle of a polite tea party: briefly stunning but ultimately minor.

Well, now there's a play that wants us to thrill to the same sort of transgression for two full acts, without the opportunity to smile, turn the page and get past it. The play is Jeff Goode's The Eight: Reindeer Monologues, and its would-be-shocking premise is that Santa Claus is a pervert and has raped the reindeer Vixen and probably Rudolph as well. As we listen to one reindeer after another tell his/her side of things, we also learn that Mrs. Claus is a sex maniac and elf-abuser, that Dasher hates Rudolph for taking his place on that famous Christmas Eve and that Rudolph himself is in a catatonic state after walking in on Santa having his way with unconsenting Vixen.

This information is conveyed to us in eight separate monologues that aren't funny enough, delivered by eight capable actors who really deserve a better text. Even with fine performers, the show is boring and overlong: There are five minutes worth of material here, stretched to over an hour. If the holiday season has you looking for an intelligent alternative to the Nutcracker, believe me, this is not it.

The play begins with a speech by Dasher (the excellent Steve Garland), who's quick to let us know that he's first reindeer, not Rudolph, and that there was only one occasion when the red-nosed interloper got to play lead. In several ways, Dasher's is the best monologue of the evening -- it's literate and unpredictable and mostly the expression of a hard-bitten veteran who's tired of hearing about a celebrated one-timer.

"I can name you 50 flying reindeer right now who will run on a clear night with temperatures in the mid-30s," he says. But he and his pals will make the trip in a blizzard: "We are supposed to be the Elite. 'The Eight.' There's a problem? We handle it." Watching Garland (with antlers, like the rest of the males), you might think that you're in for an inventive, refreshing evening.

But with the appearance of Cupid (the talented Daniel Harris), the sexual-Santa theme begins to encroach on other possible approaches. Cupid tells us that he's the only openly gay reindeer, and that Santa's a pedophile: "Do you know how many tight young asses he's had across his lap? All of them! Every single one. He makes them stand in line!"

Cupid's followed by Prancer, or, as he calls himself, Hollywood (Steve Malandro). Having starred in the film Prancer, this reindeer sees himself as a celebrity and can't help but reminisce about his life in the movie business. But before long, Hollywood too has an opinion of the rape case: "We all have Santa Claus stories. Most of us have a few Vixen stories, too. She was also 'no saint.'"

For the rest of the evening, the depraved-Santa story provides the only through-line. Blitzen (Lisa Ruzzi) tells us that Santa is a "jolly fat pervert," "a grotesque libidinous troll of a man, who knows when you are sleeping, knows when you're awake, knows how to get into your house, into your room, and knows that no matter what he does to you, you won't tell." Comet (the persuasive Mike Miller) refuses to believe that his hero Santa could have raped Vixen or Rudolph, but Dancer (Sara Wilemon), a Jewish reindeer, admits she heard strange screams coming from the toyshop on the fateful day.

Donner (the superb Mark Myers) purports to be Rudolph's father and admits that when Rudolph "started to tell me that Santa was hanging around ... I knew what was going on. And when Rudolph stopped telling me about Santa and just cried ... I knew what had happened."

And finally, Vixen herself (Megan Kirkpatrick) has her minutes in the spotlight: "Santa did not fire me after I appeared in Playboy. Instead he offered me cunnilingus -- he's always been such a tasteful man. I told him I thought his wife was the one who really needed a tongue-lashing. Or a pistol-whipping. Or to be left for dead the next time we find her out on the icecap face down in the tundra after an eggnog binge."

Of course, by the time we get to Vixen, we're so tired of the whole theme of Corruption in Toyland, we just want to be elsewhere -- in our cars, going home, or watching a different play at a different theater. Our exasperation isn't ameliorated by Trevor Keller's nearly bare black set, adorned only by a Christmas tree, a few wrapped packages and a sign pointing to the North Pole.

The actors' costumes, designed by Keller and Daryl Epperly, are nicely emblematic however, and those antlers and horns are stubbornly funny. Keller's direction has the monologuists moving around just a little, and really nothing more than that is necessary to give them a certain reality.

But I have a theory about Reindeer Monologues: The real subject isn't author Goode's skepticism about Santa; the real subject is his horror at society itself, a society that cheers itself with fantasy figures like Santa Claus. The clues are found in two places: first in Cupid's monologue, when this loquacious character suddenly lets loose a description of families where "Daddy's a workaholic, and Mommy's an alcoholic, and little brother's a sodomite, and little sister's a porno queen. Chemical dependencies and botched suicide attempts and repressed memories of sexual abuse and child molestation spewing forth at the dinner table over turkey and cranberry sauce. And Daddy's a rapist, and Mommy's a vivisectionist, and they both want a divorce. ... "

The second hint comes at the end of the play, when Vixen asks if her decision to leave the North Pole and Santa will make the world a better place. "A place where women and children can feel safe at night? A place where this sort of thing doesn't happen anymore? Absolutely not."

These passages suggest a different play, a more important work where the subject isn't children's fantasies but adult realities, the terrible realities that we read about every day in the newspaper and to which we have to remain numb lest we lose our mental balance. Making fun of Santa Claus is adolescent at best. But that other play, if Goode ever decides to write it, is about adult matters. And on the subject of those matters, Goode's ferocity might seem well-directed.

Santa Claus an old pervert? That's a good subject for a brief joke.

But a world of "chemical dependencies and botched suicide attempts ... sexual abuse and child molestation" -- that's a subject for a meaningful -- and important -- work of theater.