Chicago Theater Beat
December 18, 2011
I can’t imagine Stage Left Theatre chose to produce The Eight: Reindeer Monologues because of the Penn State scandal, wherein assistant football coach Jerry Sandusky allegedly molested young boys on a habitual basis. But the play, in which the saintly Santa Claus-whose reputation is as smudge-free as a Teflon pan-is pegged as the perpetrator of a series of sex crimes, has too many eerie parallels to be a coincidence. Specifically, the internal turmoil that the reindeer wrestle with as the Father Christmas image of Santa fades to reveal the sexual deviant very much echoes the statements of Penn State students and alumni as they talk about their now fallen hero, former head football coach Joe Paterno.
But, as many parallels as there are between art and life, I am going attribute them purely to coincidence for it would be in terrible taste for Stage Left to have produced a play that makes a removed commentary via Christmas mythos on a very real series of child molestations. Still, it is impossible not to think about victim number two, who was allegedly raped by Sandusky in the Penn State locker room, as Donner (Noah Simon) describes how Santa repeatedly sodomized his son Rudolph. And so, as fiction inadvertently collides with reality, the play comes off as unsettling.
Each of Santa’s eight reindeer deliver a monologue, presumably to a room full of investigators who are trying to determine whether Vixen’s (Lindsey Pearlman) rape accusations of Santa are true. There are ample moments of levity. Vance Smith as Dasher starts the show strong, portraying the lead reindeer as Santa’s cocky right-hand man, and delivers his speech with the brashness of a mob kingpin on trial. Zev Valancy, as the effeminate reindeer Cupid, gets some good laughs in by cranking up the sexual innuendo, specifically when he references Mrs. Claus and her groping claws. Ian Maxwell as Prancer prattles on about his stardom in the eponymous live-action film, a reference that is a bit dated if not obscure. Lisa Herceg delivers an impassioned speech as Blitzen, while Manny Buckley, as the reformed delinquent Comet, defends jolly old Saint Nick, citing the fact that the fat man helped turn his life around
By the time we get to Dancer (Kimberly Logan), the tone of the play has begun to shift. No longer are we enjoying an adult comedy that puts cherished characters of childhood lore in compromising situations; we are listening to a polemic about rape, feminism and victim blaming. These are heavy topics, and they are dealt with here appropriately (thanks largely in part to the sultry and commanding Pearlman, whose theatrical resume includes Sex Signals, a two-person play that uses comedy as a tool to address sexual assault and acquaintance rape). But if you’re expecting an adult holiday-themed comedic romp, you’re going to leave with a bit of a heavy heart.
The uneven tones of the production are its greatest tragedy. While I am pleased that the play tackles sexual assault with plain-faced seriousness, I want more comedy out of a show that jams adult themes down the throats of my beloved Christmas characters. The holidays are depressing enough. Now Santa is a rapist?
Perhaps some would have directed the show as a complete comedy, where even the topic of sexual assault is to be taken lightly, a hilarious irony since its perpetrator is Santa. But this would be vulgar since, as the Penn State scandal reminds us, there’s nothing funny about rape. And so I don’t so much blame the graveness of the work on the production’s talented directors (Jason Fleece, Drew Martin, Mark Pracht and Greg Werstler). Instead, I attribute the failures to playwright Jeff Goode for writing a play that goes beyond dark comedy and turns into a public-service announcement. Perhaps if the crime weren’t so severe or dealt with so realistically (or so in our minds thanks to Penn State), my opinion would be different.
If you’re looking for an adult-themed, laugh-filled Christmas play, this is not it. The Eight: Reindeer Monologues is very heavy despite its good humor up top. Still, this is a solid production with a great cast and is worth the viewing on its merits alone.