December 24, 2008
The new play with a Santa Claus theme by the Hawaii Repertory Theatre starts out being comic and irreverent and slowly slithers into dark places that are seriously disturbing.
Fractured Santa Clauses are always with us. Check the current media coverage on "Hunky Santa and the Candy Cane Girls" at a Los Angeles mall or the "Fashion and Style" section of the Sunday New York Times for a photo report on a convention of 5,000 Santa Claus interpretations.
So Jeff Goode's "The Eight: Reindeer Monologues" initially looks like a mildly pornographic alternative take on Santa - a jolly old elf with a yen for sadism and perversion worked out with harness, bells, and whips.
But halfway through its 90 minutes, "The Eight" leaves the wisecracks behind to address the issue of sexual harassment as the exercise of exploitive power. Lest you overlook that point, the program includes short paragraphs on molestation claims against the Catholic Church, the testimony of Anita Hill against Clarence Thomas in his Supreme Court confirmation hearings and the charges of child abuse against singer Michael Jackson.
In "The Eight," the point of view comes from the victims and observers with partial information on the entire story.
It starts with a militant and survivalist Dasher (David Starr) illustrating the toll of blood and sweat exacted from The Team in order to deliver Christmas worldwide in the span of one night. Recounting their collision with a skyscraper and a 60-floor plunge to the street, Dasher proudly snarls that they picked themselves up and kept going, "It's what you do!"
Cupid (Ryan Wuestewald) takes equal pride in being the "only openly gay" member of the team and shares coy anecdotes of Santa's favoring him with the whip. But ultimately, he's got the old man pegged as a "homophobic pedophile" intent on luring youngsters onto his lap.
Hollywood (Andrew Cottrell) has earned his nickname through repeated attempts to sell "The Story of Prancer" for development as a feature film. He's still bitter over being eclipsed in the media by Rudolph and suspicious of being scooped by Vixen's notoriety over her sexual harassment claim.
Blitzen (Kiana Rivera) is a libber and a member of the "National Organization of Does," Comet (James Aina) is a black-jacketed former member of "Hells Herds" grateful for being turned mainstream and Dancer (Kristen Christensen) is a pristine ballet instructor, mainly offended by Mrs. Claus' drinking and groping.
The saddest vignette, however, is delivered by Mathias Maas as Donner, an unremarkable and over-the-hill "herd deer" who "sold his son" for the price of being added to The Team. Rudolph was from birth a disfigured faun, but attracted Santa's prurient interest. After years of abuse, he's now catatonic, and Donner must live with the pain of having exploited him for profit.
Brian Lee Sacket's set design builds three tiers and small scenic niches that are tiny gems at revealing character. As they await their turn to speak, Cupid primps in a leather bar, Dasher hangs out at a camp site, and Donner slumps in a sagging armchair in front of a small television set, sipping beer from a can.
Each is distinctly costumed and all sport antlers - except for the does - who wear pointy ears. Collectively, they provide a scenic backdrop as the monologues are spoken in front. There is no other character interaction.
Vixen (Michelle Hurtubise) speaks last and - until that moment - has been the only character not facing the audience. As she comes into view, it is clearly the play's moment of truth. Her story, coming 10 years after the "Monicagate" scandal, is icily familiar and fatalistic.
Vixen's rape claim against Santa has put her in the sharp media spotlight reserved for "famous victims." With sardonic exhaustion, she expresses her disdain of speculation that she "asked for it" and disinterest in being a "political rallying cry." She picks up her suitcase and heads south.
Juxtaposing the not-for-children theme of sexual exploitation against a seasonal icon is risky business, but director Hannah Schauer Galli elicits uniformly excellent performances from her cast and leaves her audience clearly moved. Only when the team removes their headgear in the curtain call is the moment broken and the audience free to applaud their remarkable effort.
See this show, but be prepared. It won't let you get comfortable.
Joseph T. Rozmiarek has reviewed theater performances in Hawai'i since 1973.