"The Eight: Reindeer Monologues" - 12/8/09

Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: St. Louis

Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You and
The Eight: Reindeer Monologues

Stray Dog Theatre and HotCity Theatre

Also see Bob's review of A Christmas Story

Margeau Baue Steinau
Christopher Durang made quite a splash with his play Sister Mary Ignatius Explains it All For You: the 1979 Ensemble Studio Theatre Production in New York City won Obie Awards for Playwrighting and Performance (Elizabeth Franz in the title role) while the satirical/absurdist view of Catholic dogma presented in this play prompted efforts by the Catholic archdioceses of Boston and St. Louis to stop it from being produced in those cities. In Missouri the play also prompted two state senators to introduce a bill, which fortunately died in committee, to penalize theatre companies who produced plays which people found offensive (which could potentially encompass practically any play worth performing).

How times have changed. Stray Dog Theatre is presenting Sister Mary Ignatius through December 19 as their annual effort to prevent treacle overload at Christmastime, and it's hard to see why it prompted such a strong reaction the first time around. The play hasn't aged all that well: the Catholic Church's intolerance toward gay people, birth control and a wide variety of other contemporary realities is very old news by now and Durang's ferocity in attacking the Church's stance on these issues often creates the impression that he's trying to beat to death a horse which expired long ago. Without the power to shock, the thin premise and thinner characterizations of Sister Mary Ignatius become painfully obvious. It's really an extended comedy sketch trying to pass itself off as a play, with a running time (80 minutes) about twice as long as it has material to sustain.

Having said that, the cast of Sister Mary Ignatius does their best to make the material work and they find many good moments within it. Durang has a gift for writing satirical dialogue and the opening night audience was frequently howling with laughter at his well-placed barbs. Margeau Baue Steinau does yeoman's work as Sister Mary, who seems to spend half the play delivering monologues on Catholic doctrine to the audience, aided at times by her overly loyal student Thomas (the charming and assured Adam Steinau). Then four of her former students (Jenn Bock, Stephen Peirick, Colleen Backer and B. Weller) arrive to perform a bathrobe Christmas pageant which begins in hilarity (aided by a real bathrobe and a remarkable birthing scene) and ends somewhere else entirely. Despite being given very little to work with by the playwright each of these four actors presents a specific and believable character (aided in no small part by Gary F. Bell's costumes) and together they create enough emotional reality that Durang's more absurd flights of fancy have something to work against.

At times Sister Mary Ignatius feels like an extended therapy session, with Durang trying to exorcise his difficulties with the Church on stage: the action often drags as he makes the same point for the fourth or fifth, time and some of his shots can only be described as cheap. But there are lots of laughs as well (you might say that the Nunsense franchise which debuted in 1985 is Sister Mary Ignatius with the claws removed) as well as some sharp and still-relevant satire which make the production worth seeing. Special bonus: if you've ever wondered what a soul in limbo looks like, this production will provide the answer.

Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You will continue at Stray Dog Theatre in Tower Grove Abbey through December 19. Ticket information is available from 314-865-1995 or www.straydogtheatre.org.

Another Christmas alternative is offered by HotCity Theatre who's putting on The Eight: Reindeer Monologues by Jeff Goode through December 19. The play is just what it says on the tin: eight monologues by eight reindeer. Hollywood has replaced Prancer in the sleigh team but the names of the others will be familiar from Clement Clarke Moore's "A Visit from St. Nicholas," although their personalities have undergone major revision.

Dasher (Robert A. Mitchell) appears to have walked out of a smoky pool room in a 1940s film noir, Cupid (J.J. Sitzmann) is a twink hustler gone to seed, Comet (Rusty Gunther) is a barely reformed punk from the 'hood, Blitzen (Kim Furlow) is a bull dyke in fatigue pants and a leather jacket, Hollywood (Tyler Vickers) is only concerned about his career (quote of the evening: "If you want me to sell my soul, you have to come up with the cash"), Dancer (Kari Ely) is an aging party girl with a martini glass and flask always at the ready, Donner (Alan Knoll) looks like someone you might see on "Cops" (not wearing a police uniform) and Vixen (Julie Venegoni) is absolutely popping out of her little black dress and six-inch heels.

You may think the North Pole is a happy place but according to these reindeer it's practically Sodom and Gomorrah North with rampant sexual harassment, substance abuse and infighting. The primary issue is at hand is whether Santa raped Vixen and, as in Rashomon, each reindeer gives his version of events and it's your problem to figure out who to believe. This is a comedy of the blackest hue and The Eight is definitely not for children. However, adults who are not easily offended by sexual innuendo and bad language will enjoy the satire (the Anita Hill/Clarence Thomas hearings and OJ Simpson's arrest for the murder of his wife are approximate contemporaries of this play).

Like Sister Mary Ignatius it could use some editing but the actors do a good job of making the most of the material provided. Felicia Davenport should get a special curtain call because she not only found the perfect costume for each reindeer but came up with eight distinctive styles of antlers as well, while Cameron Fuller's set artfully manages to suggest both a postmodern North Pole and the witness box in a courtroom.

The play's structure both allows and requires the actors to work in isolation. The good point is that they have a lot of freedom to shape the presentation of their reindeer; the bad point is that they never interact, thus forfeiting many of the rich possibilities which live theater can offer. But that's how Jeff Goode wrote the play and the HotCity production capitalizes on the opportunity to develop strong characterizations for each reindeer. They're all good and I suspect that as with the Beatles every viewer will have their favorite: I particularly enjoyed Julie Venegoni's wronged woman take on Vixen and Rusty Gunther's saggy-pants Comet.

The HotCity Theatre production of The Eight: Reindeer Monologues will continue at the Kranzberg Center through December 19. Ticket information is available from 314-289-4060 or www.hotcitytheatre.org.

Sister Mary Ignatius Explains It All For You

Philomena Rostovich: Colleen Backer
Diane Symonds Jenn Bock
Gary Sullavan: Stephen Peirick
Thomas: Adam Steinau
Sister Mary Ignatius: Margeau Baue Steinau
Aloysius Benheim: B.Weller

Author: Christopher Durang
Director: Gary F. Bell
Production Manager: Jay V. Hall
Stage Manager: Justin Been
Costume Design: Gary F. Bell
Light Design: Tyler Duenow
Properties: Jay V. Hall
Set Design: Gary F. Bell
Sound Design: Justin Been
Costume Assistant: Jay V. Hall
Light & Sound Board Operator: Justin Been
Pre-Show Improvisation: Lindsey Barrow, Donna Weinsting, Kirsten Wylder

The Eight: Reindeer Monologues

Dasher: Robert A. Mitchell
Cupid: J.J. Sitzmann
Hollywood: Tyler Vickers
Blitzen: Kim Furlow
Comet: Rusty Gunther
Dancer: Kari Ely*
Donner: Alan Knoll*
Vixen: Julie Venegoni

Author: Jeff Goode
Director: Sarah Armstrong
Scenic Designer: Cameron Fuller
Stage Manager: Sarah Allison*
Costume Design: Felicia Davenport
Light Design: Alan Chlebowski
Properties: Sarah Allison* *Denotes member of Actor's Equity, the association of professional actors and stage managers in the U.S.A.

Photos: John Lamb

-- Sarah Boslaugh

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