4.5 stars

 I can’t think of a more satisfyingly unsettling show to bow out 2019 than Jeff Goode’s audacious and deeply moving The Eight: Reindeer Monologues. It’s a brilliant concept; it takes the mystique of Santa Claus and his enterprise of elves and reindeers and upends them to explore the dark and twisted implications. Santa Claus is a perfect allegory for a toxic, exploitative capitalist institution; publicly displaying benevolence and a comforting narrative but disregarding the cost to those in his thrall. Santa’s eight reindeer each come forward reveal their side of the story about the culture and legacy of the North Pole titan. One that is naturally rank with mistreatment of workers, scandal and systematic sexual assault. One of his reindeers, Vixen has come forward with her own story of an assault at his hands and rumours persist about Rudolph, the red nosed reindeer and his current state of catatonia. Goode’s script fully commits to the ridiculousness of his concept; we are after all spending time with anthropomorphic fictional characters and there is ripe comic material in satirising the myths of what we know about Santa Claus but with each monologue he proves himself more than equal to committing to the emotional realism and nuances of the abuse of power and the complicity of those in proximity to power. Look closer and Santa begins to look like Roger Ailes, Bill Clinton, Harvey Weinstein and the thousands of others whose abuse of their disproportionate power and the snowball effect on the lives of survivors, the people who love them and the community.

Led by ace team Christian Cavallo and Andrew Rosenblatt I can’t imagine a more superb team of equals bringing this material to the stage.

First we meet lead Reindeer, Dasher played with grim stoicism by Damian Okulic, who is an apologist for Santa and has internalised the party line that the ‘challenges’ in their workplace are defendable and necessary. There is an element of Stockholm syndrome to the fervour with which he defends especially when later monologues lay the seeds for how much of a blind eye he is turning. Okulic returns to the stage late in Act 2 to deliver a devastating monologue from Donner, who you may remember is Rudolph’s father, I won’t reveal the extent of what is explored in his piece but it’s a painful portrait of a parent wracked with guilt who through desperation, coercion and ambition has made the ultimate compromise at the expense of their child. Think of the reports of parents who talked about what it was like to have Michael Jackson take an interest in their child and things they would allow when offered opportunities, money and access to prestige. Okulic is phenomenally gifted at portraying two normal, everyday people possessed by the weight of systematic trauma.

Sean Paisley-Collins gives a tour de force performance as Cupid, the only male reindeer openly aligned with his female peers. Fierce, funny and flamboyant; Cupid is equal parts tragic and heroic; his veneer a useful tool to tell uncomfortable truths. On the other end of the spectrum completely is a terrifying turn as the thuggish Comet who spouts violently misogynistic rhetoric in defence of his hero, Santa. Mr Collins has an intensely unnerving gaze which he uses to amazing effect in connecting with his audience paired with a visceral commitment to the fears and painful underbellies of his characters.

Antoinette Davis’ musical theatre experience is on full display in her dual roles Blitzen and Dancer; she is extremely adept at pitching her characters’ energy so that every shift in tone could climax with a musical number. Blitzen’s righteous rage is expertly controlled for a maximum impact even if her thirst for justice overshadows the individuals at the centre. Dancer’s characterisation represents Goode’s text taking the most advantage of the absurdity of his conceit; here reimagined as a French reindeer ballerina ousted from her vocation due to cultural uprising in which reindeer were targeted. Davis’s plays it completely straight imbuing her with a purity that evoke big laughs and aching pathos side by side.

Kate Weston proves herself a brilliantly subtle physical comedian in her portrayal of the wily and ambitious Holly wood. She is every entertainment/influencer archetype brought to life; vain, opportunistic but Weston humanises her beautifully by giving even her most seemingly vapid lines a caustic edge and tough ‘seen it all’ energy.

After seven monologues all of which in their own way appropriate her story, we finally get to hear Vixen speak her truth. Stephanie Daniels gives a performance so committed it blisters the skin; angry but witty, humiliated yet defiant and dozens of other things that individuals whose personhood is eroded by trauma will recognise. It’s all there in the ways her body trembles but her shoulders and head are held high, the ways the intense directness of her gaze puts us deeply in touch with our own accountabilities. The tragedy is no matter how hard she fights for her own autonomy her identity has been stolen from her and violated even by those that mean well. Daniels skill is how she champions her with her dry wit and integrity.

Messers Cavallo and Rosenblat are commendable in their commitment to bringing this story to stage and the exceptional performances that they have facilitated. The work they have done together is seamless and unified, despite only appearing onstage together briefly the ensemble has built a beautiful, often offstage unity and solidarity to their performances which is a testament to ingenuity and style of the creative team.

This holiday season there are people who will sit opposite their abusers, exchanging polite small talk while people pretend everything is fine. Boundaries will be pushed and eroded. The Eight is validating and insightful theatre that is hard to experience but proves that truth is more vital than evasion no matter who pretty the wrapping is. It forces us to examine the systems we have propped up for the sake of a shared narrative and profit. It shows us that the cost is often untold suffering and provides a strong case for dismantling the system altogether and starting afresh. The bitter question is; will we as a collective be equal to it?

The Eight has finished it’s season at MC Showroom but will have one performance at 2:30PM Woodbin Theatre, 15 Coronation Street Geelong, Victoria 3218

Performances: 5       Direction: 4.5          Text:4.5

Sound/Lighting: 4       Set/Costume: 4  

*Full disclosure Sean Paisley Collins is a close friend who I have worked with creatively on several occasions.

Photography by Jason Wilson.

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