Charlotte Creative Loafing - December 12, 2007

Double-Dips of Santa


Published 12.12.07

It's the season of excess -- trees hewn for sacrifice, rabid crowds at shopping malls, revolutionary electric shavers ballyhooed on TV. Hollywood and Broadway roll out fresh movies and musicals to stoke the nationwide bacchanals, so why shouldn't local theater companies, symphonies, dance companies and opera houses do the same?

All too often, they don't. Sadly, they share the delusion that families gathering for the holidays want to be regaled with traditional favorites. Critics must navigate a gauntlet that includes Amahl, Messiah, Tuna, Nutcracker and Scrooge.

While the Tannenbaums haven't hung their stockings with care, I'm encouraged to find local performing arts are delivering more imaginatively this year -- infusing hearty helpings of salsa, farce and sacrilege to the live entertainment scene. Yup, it's been an unusually happy Hanukkah in 2007, thank you very much.

Late at night, Fridays and Saturdays only, Actor's Theatre makes the most sacrilegious offering with a libelous polar fantasy, penned with elfin venom by Jeff Goode, The Eight: Reindeer Monologues. Targeted by all the vile venison gossip and innuendo is none other than jolly Saint Nick. As we listen to Dasher, the lead buck notoriously displaced by Rudolph, we get an unharnessed view of that famed foggy eve. Jealousy or the grape could be fueling this opening testimony.

The plot thickens as other reindeer testify. While learning what abominations make Santa so jolly, we find equal jolts of surprise and scandal in the back stories of the Antler Eight. Cupid is openly gay, Blitzen is a labor agitator, Comet has been through rehab, and Donner is Rudolph's anguished dad. Ah, but Vixen! 'Twas she who unspeakably tempted Santa during the long, long polar night.

Quite a transformation for Tania Kelly, who was last seen as the Country Mouse at ImaginOn before slipping into Vixen's skin-tight hide. She claims to be a victim -- while coming on as anything but innocent. Ryan Stamey is equally provocative as Cupid, moonlighting as Comet. Sheila Snow Proctor as Dancer is a more wholesome hostess than Mrs. Claus if the sensational gossip is true, but Proctor reverts to her best wicked mode as Blitzen. Jeff Johnston as Dasher and Donner is in equally fine form, tossing in a third monologue as the suave Hollywood, apparently Prancer's successor.

Karen Lamb directs this merry blasphemy beautifully, abetted by an outrageous set of uncredited reindeer costumes, crowned by spiky antler hats and wigs. About the only disappointment I can register is in Stan Peal's set design: the polar panorama hardly changes from the previous show of the evening.

Peal's snowy vista -- with a cunning little tongue of runway that thrusts into the audience -- serves quite handsomely for the first show of the night, a remade reprise of The Santaland Diaries. If Actor's Theatre is going to milk this cash cow -- and they have for four years running -- they're doing it with a new set, a new director and a new Crumpet.

Actor's artistic director Chip Decker and his 2007 diarist, Joseph Klosek, are clearly on the same page. Decker wants this thing broadly done, commandeering snips Strauss's Zarathustra and the Star Wars theme in his sound design to score what might be wildly imagined as splashy transitions. Klosek deals in similar coin, hyperactively gesticulating from the get-go, as if he weren't narrating his misadventures as a Santa's helper so much as urgently illustrating them to teammates playing Charades.

I found this crackhead approach to David Sedaris' Yule musings a bit unnerving at first, but the energy of the narrative catches up with Klosek soon enough. When that happens, the 2007 voyage to Macy's Santaland moves to the head of what has been a rather distinguished class at 650 Stonewall, particularly if you've had your fill with mordant cynicism and want a livelier, more vivid experience.