Orange County Register
December 7, 2012

Multiple readings help 'The Eight' to fly high


Just as many of Santa's reindeer are tired of having to share the spotlight with Rudolph every year, theater fans everywhere must long for December shows that don't revolve around the winter holidays or characters named Scrooge or George Bailey.

At least, that was probably the thinking of playwright Jeff Goode in penning "The Eight: Reindeer Monologues." Why not strike back against the excesses of the season with a raunchy, adult-oriented look at the goings-on at the North Pole?

The series of eight scathingly funny speeches, some of which are outright tirades, has served Chance Theater well over the years. Like its most recent previous "Reindeer" productions, this one double- and triple-casts all eight roles, giving audiences a new look and the staging a new spin each time out.

Director Oanh Nguyen and associate director Alex Bueno tap a total of 16 performers, including Bueno herself, who repeats her take on Comet as a proud street buck of Mexican-American heritage.

This year's show is considerably faster paced than others, making for fewer dead spots. Cast members prowl the audience, looking for patrons with whom to interact. That element plus the rotation of performers for each reindeer character gives each performance of the show a flavor of its own.

The opening newspaper headline "Foul Play Postpones Christmas" is followed by the appearance of Dasher, portrayed by Ben Green as a red plaid-shirted, profanity-spewing redneck with a crushed beer can nestled on one antler.

Green's buck is jittery with resentment toward Rudolph and Vixen, and with anger at being taken for granted, his macho bluster tempered with crude posturings and a slobby demeanor. Risk and danger are the whole point of flying in bad weather, he insists.

As each deer tells his or her story, we see them aligning either with Vixen, who has filed sexual harassment charges against Santa for raping her in the elves' toyshop, or with the Kringles, for having made Christmas a reality for millions of kids.

Among the former are Christopher Renfro's silly, giddy take on Cupid. As "the only openly gay reindeer" on the team, his exposé of the dysfunction of the North Pole is laced with a manic focus on the physicality of animal sex.

Also on Vixen's side is Dannielle Green's deliberately hyper, manic, comically shrill Blitzen. Green will remind many of former "Saturday Night Live"-er Kristen Wiig in both appearance and comedic timing as her high-strung, near-neurotic doe character dishes the dirt on a crude Santa wholly to blame for wrecking Vixen's career.

Bueno's Chicano gang-banger, redeemed by Santa's belief in him, draws laughs from the actor's thin phony mustache, squinty left eye and husky, heavily accented voice.

The character's strengths are his candor and loyalty. While Comet could never defy St. Nick, Rudolph's dad, the aging buck Donner (Jeff Hellebrand), and sweet-tempered doe Dancer (Kelli Spill), appear caught in the crossfire.

Speaking in heavy New Yorkese, Hellebrand's Donner glows with bursts of parental pride over holding out on joining Santa's team until Rudolph was also given a job, all while imploring us to empathize with having to deal with "the most powerful man in the world" (Santa).

Nothing about Spill's Dancer says "naivete" more than her meek persona, Minnesota-inflected delivery and genuine passion for ballet dancing, traits that combine to touching effect.

While the Dancer and Donner monologues are the rough equivalent of palate cleansers, Casey Long's Prancer, who prefers the moniker "Hollywood," has no patience for anything that might detract from his career as a movie star.

An egotistical, foul-mouthed, politically incorrect fathead, Long's shades-wearing buck brags about artistic integrity despite his own mania for commercial success. He's more peeved at Rudolph for stealing his TV-special thunder than he is with Vixen's lawsuit, which he cynically chalks up as a grab for headlines.

The first seven monologues of course lead up to Vixen, who gets the last word. Like her cast mates, Jesse Schiffmacher makes the role her own -- in this case, a slender, curvy redhead revealingly dressed to kill (in black and red), yet unapologetic for her allure, femininity and unadulterated sexuality.

As Vixen articulates in no uncertain terms how Santa victimized her, she works herself into a rage. Goode has stacked the deck to champion her rights, and that makes her outrage credible and laudable.

As each performer has the floor long enough to connect with Chance audiences, it's easy to see "The Eight" in terms of stand-up comedy. That the evening's overt themes revolve around various icons of Christmastime is almost incidental, a fact that speaks highly of Chance's success in taking Goode's 1994 script and, every few years or so, revitalizing it.