Sunday, December 30, 2007

Hard 'Eight'

The cast of The Eight: Anthony Goes, Melissa Baroni, Brett Marks, Eliza Lay, Curt Klump, Greg Maraio, Ed Peed, and Hannah J. Barth.

The walk-out, that most dreaded of theatre events, has struck again. About a half hour into last night's benefit performance of The Eight: Reindeer Monologues, a whole row of the audience suddenly rose and solemnly trooped out - just as they did at the ART earlier this year, and for apparently the same reason: foul language. But I almost have to (half-) admit they had a point. Playwright Jeff Goode does miscalculate the raunchiness of the early monologues in Eight, and the problem was compounded by the show's (hilarious and savvy) marketing. A widely circulated, very smartly produced YouTube video seemed to promise an edgy-but-goofy "alternative" Christmas show - spiced by a grittier version of the saccharine-cutting sarcasm of The Santaland Diaries.

Only The Eight is anything but sweet - and alas, Jeff Goode is no David Sedaris. Instead of Crumpet the Elf's snide asides about the underside of Xmas, we instead get an earful about Santa's "chubbie" and Mrs. Claus's nymphomania - not to mention the antics of "the lesbos and the faggot" on Santa's sleigh team. The lines are, indeed, intentionally offensive, and simply aren't all that funny - but Jackie Davis and her cast tried to sell them harder than ever, which only made them fall even flatter.

Of course that didn't justify the walkout. The group reportedly had teenagers with them, but I doubt anything in the show would have been news to them. Perhaps their parents, however, were under-exposed to live theatre and its standards. The show was advertised as for "mature audiences," but they probably imagined this meant it would be "edgy" the way Sex and the City or The Sopranos are edgy - i.e., watered-down, premium-cable, Boston-Globe-style edgy. But live theatre - fringe theatre, in fact - can go a lot farther, folks, and often does. Once the curtain rises, you can easily find yourself face to face with a gay reindeer snickering about Santa buggering Rudolph.

What was most dismaying, however, about the disappearance of those audience members was that they missed out on what turns out to be a pretty powerful play - which, by the way, isn't really a "Christmas play" at all, not even an alternative one (although it did serve quite well as a benefit for the Boston Area Rape Crisis Center). And as the drama developed, it became clear that Goode's method had worked against him a bit - he only lets the "facts" about what went down in Santa's workshop dribble out over the course of his eight monologues, so only slowly do we get a sense of the themes backing up his nasty opening salvos. And he does have a real theme - the all-too-familiar struggle between a woman wronged and a male power structure bent on marginalizing her; and perhaps un-coincidentally, as said theme comes clear, Goode's pokes and jokes get funnier. Of course in Santa Claus we have the ultimate white, male, benevolent power-figure, and Goode neatly skewers his conservative defenders, who tend to be jocks, louts, suits, or hacks. But the author has almost as much fun with the supporters of Vixen, the babe-a-licious, uh, vixen who wound up at the wrong end of Santa's pole: chilly Blitzen is a corporate feminazi, Dancer's a ditzy diversity queen who wants to know if she gets the night off if Christmas falls on Hanukkah, and Cupid's a giggly gossip whore with a bad attitude and a potty mouth.

But luckily this talented cast turns these caricatures into characters - if director Davis perhaps doesn't solve the problem of the play's tone at first, she nevertheless draws performances of detail and depth from everyone. Watching The Eight, in fact, was rather like watching the next generation of local actors mature before your eyes. The entire cast was strong, but perhaps first among equals were Melissa Baroni,Curt Klump, Ed Peed, Hannah J. Barth, and particularly Eliza Lay, who nailed bad-girl Vixen's broken-hearted rue. Something tells me few of these folks will be on the "fringe" for long.

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