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Saving Christmas 

Two very different holiday productions provide acceptable seasonal entertainment

It's Thanksgiving, which means the Christmas season has been going full-throttle for a couple of weeks now. The first two holiday theatrical productions to hit the boards this year couldn't be more dissimilar: an affectionate, family-friendly comedy from Gaslight Theatre, and a subversive, dark comedy from the new Unlikely Theatre.

Take the kids to Gaslight, but don't let them anywhere near the other show; don't even let them read the review, because it contains naughty words that nobody wants to believe Santa and his reindeer could utter.

Gaslight is reviving Peter Van Slyke's A Smalltown Christmas. As with most of Gaslight's gentle holiday shows, this one has pretty low dramatic stakes: In 1961 Smalltown U.S.A., only young Rolinda Porter feels the holiday cheer; she takes it upon herself to restore the Christmas spirit among her townsfolk, but is opposed by Mayor Dishwater, who is hoping the residents will grow so disenchanted that they'll leave and sell their property to him on the cheap. Dishwater could then sell it off as part of a big highway-improvement package that nobody knows about. If Rolinda fails, Smalltown will become nothing but a freeway rest stop.

On the down side, Rolinda spurts her applause line, vowing to bring the Christmas spirit back to Smalltown, so often that before long, you just want to stuff a coal-filled stocking into her mouth. Dishwater is not a very effective villain--he's thwarted at almost every step--and the rest of the characters aren't as doofy or self-aware as in most Gaslight shows, depriving this one of the usual moments of comic wickedness.

Still, it's good family entertainment, appropriating lively but not necessarily hit songs from the era and framing the action at teen-dance contests. It's sort of a G-rated holiday version of Hairspray, without the cross-dressers and Negroes.

The Gaslight regulars throw themselves into it with sincerity. Todd Thompson, as usual, has a unique life force, and Joe Cooper is a unique life form. The expert cast also includes, among others, Sarah Vanek, Deborah Klingenfus, Mike Yarema, David Orley and Tarreyn Van Slyke, doing what they've done so often, but so well. Tom Benson's scenic design is especially good (for Gaslight purposes), and there's the possibility of a serious wig malfunction to look forward to.

Jeff Goode's The Eight: Reindeer Monologues seems to have lost its central colon since it debuted in the mid-1990s, which is a shame. Santa's flying reindeer, according to Goode, consider themselves the elite of their species, The Eight. Their leader, Dasher, decks himself out in camo, with carrots hanging from his ammo belt. You halfway expect him to shout "Semper Fi" to his sleigh squad.

But there's dissention in the reins; the North Pole is rife with allegations that Santa has been a "holly jolly sex crime waiting to happen." He has done something very bad--it's unclear what--to the now-catatonic young Rudolph, and he may have raped the aptly named Vixen. The world is in an uproar; some of the reindeer stand behind Santa and vow to get the gifts delivered, but others are threatening a walkout. At a press conference, each of The Eight tries to make his or her position clear, but, morally speaking, it remains one foggy Christmas Eve.

Goode's suite of monologues marks the debut of RES Productions and the Unlikely Theatre, but the show is already something of a Christmas chestnut; others have produced it in Tucson in the past, and for more than a decade, it has nationally made the circuit of companies looking for a gritty, adult alternative to warmhearted Christmas shows like Gaslight's.

Because it's ostensibly a press conference, the show can be done on the cheap without sets, and it can take place just about anywhere. This version is making the rounds of Tucson; it launched last week at Club Congress, and then moved to Studio Connections; in the next couple of weeks, you can catch more performances at Club Congress, Live Theatre Workshop and Beowulf Alley.

A sort of story does evolve over the course of the 90-minute play, but this is more of a series of character studies, and director Howard Allen has gotten his eight actors--sporting fuzzy antlers, black gloves evoking hooves, and decidedly human garb--to delineate each reindeer vocally and physically.

It's an uneven show; after Dasher (Jeffrey Carlos Robinson) makes his swaggering, macho opening statement, Goode can't manage to maintain that level of invention consistently through the next three monologues. Oh, we get a gay reindeer (the not excessively swishy Steve McKee), a feminist reindeer (Chris Farishon in a "Doe Power" shirt) and a reindeer more concerned with his own movie rights than social justice (the sometimes muttering Garrett Staab), but they are novelties more than characters. The biggest laughs initially come from hearing reindeer--and, by extension, the unseen Santa--say "fuck" and "shit," but that's not enough to sustain a show.

After the (unnecessary) intermission, things pick up with stronger writing and acting to match, starting with Alida Gunn's highly physical performance as a reindeer Santa saved from a life of drug abuse and crime; she's got all the fervor of a street-tough-turned-evangelist. Roxanne Harley delivers what is ultimately the most poignant, if not entirely relevant, monologue as Dancer, who keenly misses being able to dance. Eric Anson does some of his best work ever as Donner, Rudolph's father, who struggles to justify selling out on so many levels. When Vixen finally appears to tell her story, it's a bit of a disappointment, making light of some very serious issues, but Laine Peterson does very well with the role. Imagine Sarah Silverman with antlers.

Reindeer Monologues draws a younger-than-usual crowd, but it's a fine show for any post-high school patron with a spark of cynicism that's at least as bright as Rudolph's nose.

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