Saturday, December 5, 2015

Reindeer confidential: Santa's sleigh-pulling team tells all in TOTS production

In Jeff Goode's "The 8 Reindeer Monologues," the North Pole criminal justice system takes testimony from Santa Claus' most crucial work force to see if the rumors are true. The wheels will grind slowly, if at all; the accused has all the time in the world. Meanwhile, the NPPD is hearing one at a time from witnesses at headquarters.

At issue: Is the Jolly Old Elf a sex fiend, an exploiter of his perky-tailed, antler-bearing, flying forces? In the course of the eight monologues of the title, the Theatre on the Square cast lays out for audiences the case against the annual red-suited deliveryman.

No two actors ever appear together on TOTS' Stage 2, of course, making director Lori Raffel's task a matter of eliciting self-sufficient performances from each actor. The succession of speeches, with each one building on elements of its predecessors, mostly struck home Friday night.

As the battle-scarred veteran Dasher, Will Carlson seemed a little too weary to establish that this star reindeer can boast a valorous past. Immediately thereafter, it was disconcerting to watch Zach Ramsey as Cupid needing to consult a script, even glancingly. (He was the unannounced replacement for Michael Todd Swinford, whose departure from the cast was due to his father's recent death.) Cupid is a ranting "gay-deer," and Ramsey's reliance on a well-thumbed text undercut the character's explosive and sometimes obscene rancor. He deserves credit, however, for being almost off-book on short notice.

The show began to hit its stride with the vain wannabe star Hollywood, a.k.a. Prancer, played by Eric Brockett, followed by the sneering, gossipy lesbian Blitzen (Paige Scott). I began then to be comfortable appreciating the range of these characters, and the way their stories overlap to fill in portraits of themselves and Santa. The mystery surrounding Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer is somewhat clarified in tantalizing bits before the last two monologues make his sad fate evident.

Robert Webster as Comet was a peppery malcontent, the playwright's take on the perpetually agitated sort of citizen whose legitimate grievances tip over into paranoia. His edgy resentment came across well, as did the more selfish kind exhibited by Tanya Haas as Dancer, whose balletic pretensions and prima donna airs (blended with Jewish American Princess stereotyping) were delightfully displayed.

The play turns toward pathos in the testimony of Jim Lucas' Donner, presented as Rudolph's anguished father. It comes full circle in the defensive sauciness of Vixen (Amanda Bell), who struts and smirks about the stage in a physical characterization as rich as her verbal one. Comedy is never entirely in the shade, despite the monologues' gradual plunge toward the dark side.

The audience is left to savor some of the social satire Goode has distributed among his characters in the midst of bringing Santa Claus down to a level well below that sustained by seasonal cynicism. In "The 8 Reindeer Monologues," the iconoclasm is searing, but probably not too much for anyone willing to admit reluctantly that the Santa brand has been way oversold for too long.

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