Rudolph, the Red-Hosed Reindeer

Written by David Cerda
Directed by Justin Kirkeberg

At the Bailiwick Theater in Chicago
A review of the performance on Dec. 2, 2007

When we dislike a particular attitude that someone else is displaying, we have at least four options. There’s the uncivilized option of violence, the condescending option of scolding them, and the urbane option of heuristic dialogue. But the first of those is immoral, the second will just turn them away, and, unless one’s adversary is smart enough to learn from his mistakes, the third is impossible. Fortunately, we have the fourth option – satire – the one that the play’s author, David Cerda, chose when he wrote the entertaining morality play Rudolph, the Red-Hosed Reindeer.

Cerda wields a wicked pen. His Rudolph ostensibly satirizes the 1964 Rankin-Bass animated television special of almost-the-same name, Rudolph, the Red-Nosed Reindeer. (And, unless I’m mistaken, the latter became the longest-running holiday special ever broadcast.) What’s most clever about Cerda’s Rudolph is that, using parallel characters, themes, situations, and dialogue, it teaches the same lesson as does the original. Because he invites us to laugh at everything except the lesson, it’s easy to see that this play satirizes not the 1964 Rudolph itself, but rather the very attitude of stifling social conformism that the original challenges.

And like the original, this variation on Rudolph is an amusing but touching story about misfits and their journey to self-acceptance. There’s Rudolph, the heterosexual cross-dressing reindeer. Then there’s Herbie the Elf, who isn’t stereotypically gay enough to satisfy his fellow toymakers. Other misfits follow. Along the way, some epiphanies occur, reconciliations are made, and most of those concerned live happily ever after. It concludes with the requisite morality lesson.

Sam the Snowman, who narrated the story, was played by Robert Bouwman, no less jolly a raconteur than was Burl Ives in the original. Bouwman’s delivery was nicely fluid, and it sometimes reminded me of the eloquent British actor Edmund Gwenn (for example, as Kris Kringle in Miracle on 34th Street), who chewed every syllable to the point of liquefaction. Like Gwenn’s diction, Bouwman’s was impeccable, even if halfway through every sentence we knew what he was going to say.

In the title role, Corey Mills gave us an impressive range of triple-distilled emotions, from playfulness to sobriety, diffidence to confidence, confusion to coherence, sadness to happiness. His baritone voice was rich, resonant, and strong, with a tightly-controlled straight tone that glided smoothly into a vibrato. True to the old show-business maxim, he left me wanting to hear more. But despite his often commanding stage presence, he sometimes displayed an air of indifference, which had the effect of clipping the top off his performance.

As Herbie the Elf, Dan Hickey was spot-on, though I do have to confess to some bias here, being acquainted with him. His caricature of Herbie sparkled; his gestures were crisp and his lines were frictionless. Not only did he capture the original Herbie with aplomb, but, even had I been unfamiliar with the 1964 story, Hickey’s performance would have stirred genuine sympathy within me for a sweet but frustrated youngster whom others try to keep from being who he is or wants to be.

In this story, Santa Claus is crass and ribald, a thoroughly repulsive brute. Aaron Smith pulled it off well, and his chemistry with Elizabeth Lesinski, who played Mrs. Claus, created a credible (and not-so-funny) antagonism between husband and wife. It would have been easy for Lesinski to resort to melodrama to portray the self-loathing alcoholic First Lady of the North Pole – and victim of spousal abuse. But instead, she chose to balance her role, playing it with just a touch of understatement. Kudos, Ms. Lesinski.

Lori Lee, who played the simpleton Yukon Cornelia roaming the frozen north as a prospector, imbued just enough craziness into her character to prevent obscuring her big heart. Moreover, Lee gave us some classically funny facial expressions, especially to show vacuity. However, some variation in her stage voice would have been welcome, along with more clarity in her delivery.

Good supporting performances came from Tyler Crago as a winsome Charlie-in-the-Box, Steve Lehman as a strutting King Moonracer, and Peter Mavrik as a supercilious Score.

The most dazzling caricature came from Ed Jones, in the role of the Abominable Drag Beast, a desperate and pathetic Cher-wannabe. Jones was extravagant as the pitiful Beast, complete with bad lip-synchronizing, clumsy dance moves, a tacky costume, and campy imitations. But his scenes were imprecise, unfurling so fast that they muddied the storyline. In fact, from his entrance to the end of the play, the cast seemed to rush, and the result was a roughness in their collective performance that left an impression of insufficient rehearsal.

Cerda’s script has some ingenious elements, an example being the parallel between Rudolph’s shiny bling and his counterpart’s red nose in the original story: each is the very reason for its owner’s earlier derision, yet ultimately each saves Christmas – and in the same way. But the play had a few shortcomings. First, the stage was too cramped for the dance numbers; this reduced what could have been spectacular down to what was only average. In general, the stage was too busy, the allusions to popular culture hurtled by too fast, nuances disappeared in the frenzy of activity, and there was the occasional burst of needlessly graphic language.

The gay clichés were incessant, zipping by, one after the other, like a train of pink cars on lavender rails. But should we consider that a shortcoming? I don’t ask this question facetiously. If the play and its antecedent are about having the courage to be oneself, then bigotry, whether in the form of clichés or stereotypes, have to be present and have to be aggravating enough to lay a foundation for the satire. Cerda doesn’t argue in this play that stereotypes are imaginary, but rather that the misuse of stereotypes isn’t the exclusive province of people who don’t fit them.

Our little red-hosed reindeer and his friends aren’t shaking a finger at only one kind of intolerance coming from only one direction. In fact, if there’s brilliance in Cerda’s script, it resides in the irony of his backhanded swipe at narrow-mindedness in general, from within an equally narrow cultural context. Bravo, David.