If you thought David Sedaris and Joe Mantello’s The Santaland Diaries was the ultimate in smart-ass holiday entertainment for adults, you haven’t seen Jeff Goode’s The Eight: Reindeer Monologues. Not as famous as Diaries but produced almost as widely since its debut in 1994, The Eight is a sometimes shocking R-rated satire with a deadly serious message about sexual harassment and the abuse of power by widely beloved authorities. Goode’s play is a collection of eight monologues, each delivered by one of Santa’s reindeer, that recounts, Rashomon-style, the different witness perspectives surrounding a claim by Vixen that she has been assaulted by St. Nick. Each of the reindeer, rendered by Goode as surprisingly rounded characters with their own North Pole agendas, has complicated reasons for believing or attempting to discredit Vixen’s claims. The script was inspired by an early-’90s clergy sex abuse scandal in the Catholic church’s Chicago archdiocese. When a theater company gets the show’s delicate balance of outrageous humor and moral seriousness right, The Eight is a thoughtful, unsettling exploration of why people cling so desperately to illusions of purity about their favorite icons. And it achieves this via eight human actors wearing reindeer antlers.
“It’s a polarizing piece of theater,” said director Seth Johnston, whose small troupe, Drag Strip Courage, is currently staging its fourth iteration of Goode’s lacerating script in Fort Worth, this time at Arts Fifth Avenue. “One minute people are laughing their heads off, and the next minute, there’s stunned silence. Audiences are never sure how to react from moment to moment.”
Veteran North Texas actress Linda Much returns for her third go-around with The Eight as Dancer, a Jewish ex-ballerina reindeer whose 10-minute monologue includes a slow realization about what her own previous encounter with Santa Claus in the toy shop actually meant. By night, Much has performed in shows at Stage West, Theatre Arlington, WaterTower Theatre, and Artisan Center Theater. By day, she is a licensed professional counselor with a private practice in Bedford who sees patients dealing with depression, anxiety, and addiction. A Philadelphia native, Much started acting in shows at TCU when she went there to earn her graduate degree in the 1980s. She sees theater and therapy as intimately related. Both attempt to pinpoint the difficult motivations behind apparently inexplicable human behavior. And she adores the character of Dancer, a reindeer who just wants to return to her ballet roots and forget all about the nefarious machinations of Santa and Mrs. Claus.
“I love this show because it allows me to speak directly to the audience,” she said. “I’m not afraid to ad lib, and sometimes they talk back to me. It establishes this intense relationship between actor and audience that most shows don’t permit, because you’re not allowed to break that famous fourth wall.”
Like the rest of The Eight, Much’s Dancer monologue veers from the comical (she’s aghast that Santa doesn’t make paid-holiday concessions for Hanukkah) to the shocking (she recalls how her dance school for reindeer was burned down by mysterious forces and compares it to the Nazi persecution of Jews). Much relishes the sense of control she feels when an audience is following the ups and downs of her speech, an emotional roller coaster that continues throughout the length of The Eight.
Johnston said Goode’s script encourages timely references to current abuse-of-power scandals, so don’t be surprised if a reference or two to Bill Cosby finds its way into some of the performances. Much thinks that the show can be cathartic in the unusual way it addresses assault and harassment, but she isn’t sure if holiday audiences are always ready to ponder the full import of the issues that Goode raises.
“Because the discussion surrounding sexual harassment and abuse has increased over the years, and about people you’d never expect, the show’s relevance has grown,” she said. “Someone accusing Santa Claus is very similar to someone accusing Bill Cosby, I suppose. I think a lot of people want to see this show as isolated to Santa. It’d be nice if they made [the larger connection], but not I’m not sure they always do.”
The Eight: Reindeer Monologues
Thru Dec 21 at Arts Fifth Avenue, 1628 5th Av, FW. $15. 817-923-9500.