Tuesday, December 13, 2011

Biting comedy 'The Eight' imagines a darker side to life at the North Pole

By Theodore P. Mahne, Times-Picayune

You better watch out, and you better not cry. No, really, you better watch out. There’s an old guy hanging out at the mall who is promising to give children toys and candy. But they have to come sit on his lap. He even has someone taking pictures!

If his name wasn’t Santa, you’d be calling the cops.

That’s the premise behind “The Eight: The Reindeer Monologues,” a dark comedy by Jeff Goode now having its local debut at the Mid-City Theatre. The North Pole Police Department is questioning the right jolly old elf about, well, how he gets his jollies, after accusations of rape, molestation and sexual harassment have been brought forward by several reindeer, members of the elite squad known as “The Eight.”

Goode, a prolific writer who specializes in darkly twisted comedy, takes a satiric and cynical look at the nature of contemporary sexual politics, a celebrity-driven media culture, and how society relishes a scandal that brings down heroic figures. Using a beloved icon as its focus makes “The Eight” an absurdly funny work. It’s like trying to imagine Jimmy Stewart telling a really filthy joke.

While the tartness of Goode’s humor might help cut the treacle of too many sugarplums and ghosts of Christmases yet to come, too much of his vinegar will leave you in need of a dose of “It’s a Wonderful Life.”

The series of monologues have Santa’s elite eight, depicted by a delightful cast of blackened-nose actors, each offering individual responses to the allegations against the fat man. John “Spud” McConnell gets things started as Dasher, the gruff, undisputed leader of the Eight. With a riotously funny characterization, McConnell plays the part as an antlered Tony Soprano, angrily defending Claus.

Kenneth Thompson’s flamboyant Cupid, Santa’s only openly gay reindeer, is a hoot; his more nuanced portrayal of “Hollywood” (Prancer’s nickname) as an egocentric but second-rate actor is right on the mark.

The comedy takes a decidedly grimmer tone just before the end of the first act as Maureen Brennan gives a pitch perfect performance as an in-your-face Blitzen, now a militantly feminist doe, speaking out on behalf of Santa’s victims. Goode presents his sharpest jabs, exposing the media circus that any modern scandal devolves into. Brennan’s Blitzen is less whistleblower and more media savvy opportunist seeking to push her own agenda. All she needs is Gloria Allred standing at her side.

While the disarming humor remains steady throughout the second act, it grows more and more disturbingly unsettling as Goode’s premise starts to feel too much drawn from the headlines.

As Comet, Fayard Lindsey steps forward as the true believer to offer a heartfelt defense of Santa. It is one of the funniest pieces of the show but also rings the most true to life.
By the time Bob Scully delivers his story as Donner, the laughs are downright nervous and the audience is squirming. Scully is a good ol’ buck who knowingly sacrificed his son Rudolph to Santa’s perverted desires so he could provide for his family.

Matters are left unresolved as Santa’s alleged victim, Vixen, steps forward. Doe-eyed Jessie Terrebonne defiantly vamps it up in fishnet stockings and tight red corset. She plays for laughs but also stingingly reveals how society seeks to blame the victim when a woman makes claims of sexual assault against a powerful man. For such a trifle of a show, Terrebonne gives a remarkably deep performance here.

It’s difficult to tell whether Goode intended the level of discomfort amid the laughs and director Ann Mahoney-Kadar doesn’t seem to come down on one side or the other either. Nevertheless, “The Eight” is a shockingly different twist on standard holiday fare that is both appealingly funny and unexpectedly challenging.

Needless to say, this show is adults-only holiday fare. No children or fawns allowed.