New Times Broward-Palm Beach - December 12, 2002

Wild Kingdom

Eight tiny reindeer and the fat man who got his Claus into them, plus women in wolves' clothing

Theater has always had a rabble-rousing role at the margins of society. Plato mistrusted poets and art in general. Aeschylus got himself exiled when his plays criticized the Athenian politicos. The Puritans tried to ban the Elizabethan theaters, and Hitler burned down a number of them. Henry Fielding, the great English novelist who wrote Tom Jones, got his start as a playwright (with set designs by his painter pal William Hogarth), but when they tweaked Prime Minister Horace Walpole once too often, Walpole rammed a law through Parliament that outlawed their theater.

This renegade tradition lives on in South Florida as a swarm of tiny, determined troupes flies against convention in show after show. Lacking establishment credentials or ties, these theaters don't have the support of foundations or corporations; their supporters, who tend to be somewhat lower on the economic ladder, often lack the means or tradition of donor support. Instead, these companies rely on self-financing and ultra-low-budget productions, aiming to deliver the biggest impact with the fewest resources possible.

That's the recipe for the Imagine Theatre Company's latest no-frills, high-energy project, The 8: Reindeer Monologues, a clever, bitter fantasy now in a late-night run at the Hollywood Playhouse's Blue Box. The "Blue" is apt. Playwright Jeff Goode's premise is that Santa Claus is a serial sexual predator who has been molesting his elves and reindeer for years. The play consists of a series of monologues as one by one, each of his eight reindeer spills his or her secrets about what has been going down at the North Pole all these Yuletides.

This scabrous satire is a nice antidote to your standard treacly holiday cheer. It's also a comic workout for some of South Florida's best talent. Lead reindeer Dasher (Joe Kimble), a beer-swilling brooder, frets about the looming sex scandal involving Santa and Vixen, the reindeer who claims he raped her. Low-energy kvetcher Dancer (Ivonne Azurdia) doesn't want to get involved, but outraged Blizten (Wendolyn Mateo) plans a reindeer walkout and a picket line. Prancer, a.k.a. Hollywood (Paul Tei), is a self-absorbed careerist who worries how Vixen's charge will affect his movie plans. Right-wing moralist Comet (Jerry Seeger) won't accept any criticism of Santa, but when Vixen (Azurdia again) finally appears in leather, fishnet stockings, and stiletto heels, she levels blistering charges that should make ol' Kringle's beard curl.

The cast is in fine form, with Tei leading the charge, especially as Cupid, the first openly gay reindeer, whose elliptical monologue goes off into meditations of the joys of gay reindeer sex and other cul-de-sacs. Playwright Goode has an ear for contemporary social preoccupations as well as for wordplay, especially sexual innuendo: Reindeer oral sex is "giving snout," and lesbian activity is "going doe-to-doe." All of this makes for some bawdy shenanigans, despite the serious subjects. The 8 is all about performers, text, and audience. Using a bare stage, four lights, and only a few props and furniture pieces, director Elena Maria Garcia serves up a Saturday Night Live-style romp -- breezy but not slapdash, well-suited to the show's late-night time slot.

The Santa sex scandal is a clever story hook, but perhaps that's not all that's going on here. Sure, this fantasy has to do with Santa and reindeer and elves, but merely lampooning Christmas tradition is not a very challenging task -- plays and films have drawn from the anti-Christmas well for decades. Underneath all that, The 8 is really about community dysfunction. These serious underpinnings take the foreground when Kimble's other character, Donner, the milquetoast father of the never-seen Rudolph, takes the stage. It seems that Santa was abusing the physically and mentally challenged Rudolph for years and gave Donner, a mediocre reindeer, a position in Santa's prestigious sleigh team in exchange for his silence. In this disturbing monologue, Goode sets up a likable character who makes horrible moral choices, and Kimble does a fine job at depicting these complexities.

Despite this play's wacky concept, it is uncomfortably true-to-life in observing contemporary social behavior, and that is downright depressing. This reindeer community faces a fundamental societal challenge but responds with cynicism, denial, self-involvement, or self-indulgent rage. There is cooperation in the work environment, but these reindeer have no sense of community beyond that. They don't organize or cooperate to solve their problems; they either do nothing or flee. Sound familiar? Vixen herself realizes she can't win in a confrontation with Santa and plans to move to Florida, "where I can be normal again." Maybe so, maybe not, but if she's looking for strong, healthy community action here, that reindeer's just headed for more holiday blues.