Tuesday, Dec. 9, 2008

Rudolph Reviewed

By Russ Bickerstaff
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Prior to the opening of Rudolph the Pissed-Off Reindeer, the show's writer/director/co-producer Patrick Schmitz had voiced the thought that he may be a “one trick pony.” With no other plans to work on another feature-length play at any point in the future, Rudolph may be Schmitz’s only trick, but it’s a rather clever one.

A parody of the Rankin and Bass stop motion animated TV specials of the ‘60’s and ‘70’s, Rudolph the Pissed-Off Reindeer painstakingly brings the distinctive visual world of the old classics to the stage with set and costuming exhaustively referenced from them.  Combining parody of the old Christmas classics with a steadfastly serious crime drama plot involving Santa and misfit toys, the show tilts on novel directions that feel refreshing for a genre that is by now quite stale. Christmas shows of all types have becomes so cliché that staging of any of the classics run the risk of spoofing themselves. By combining a gritty crime drama flavor with traditional Christmas cliché comedy, playwright Patrick Schmitz and company have crafted something truly novel.

The comedy itself is a bit hit or miss. Those who are exceedingly familiar with the old TV specials will find the performances particularly funny. The actors adopt voices and mannerisms that are almost perfect replications of the stop motion toys they are meat to represent. Of particular note here is Jeremy Eineichner in the role of Sam the Snowman, who has been brought in to be interrogated by a pair of police detectives played with suitable dramatic intensity by Lee Rowley and Aaron Kopec. Leaning on Sam to tell them what he knows about Santa’s involvement with the darker side of his job, he begins to weave the traditional tale of Rudolph as comically mutated for the stage by Patrick Schmitz.

Having considerable experience with stage comedy in various capacities over the years, Schmitz’s sense of humor is a natural for a feature-length spotlight. Mining all the traditional places for humor, Schmitz manages to find relatively fresh takes on some of the tired, old holiday comedy fare. Time and again, lyrics of overwhelmingly familiar Christmas carols are spoken as casual dialogue-- a gag, which never really seems to get old. The jokes filling the show are a pretty solid mix of the obscure and the more obvious. While there is little question that the humor here will appeal far more to those familiar with the original Rankin and Bass TV specials, there’s plenty here that will appeal to anyone drawn to see a Christmas comedy.

The show features a rather large cast that mixes adult and teenage actors to varying evels of success. There is some excellent comedic chemistry going on here, particularly as 15 year-old Joel Boyd (Rudolph) interacts with many of the adult actors. Adult actors include cleverly-placed members of local all-female sketch comedy group Broadminded. In the major supporting role of reindeer Donner’s wife Rosemary, Boradminded’s Megan McGee pulls comedy out of moments that might not otherwise be nearly as intense.

As good as Schmitz’s script is, the comedy and crime drama elements aren’t always perfectly balanced—a situation that is glaringly apparent at the end of the play as plot resolution can seem a bit tiresome and forced with everything reaching its final resolution, but everything leading the play there is balanced enough to make up for this shortcoming in a otherwise thoroughly satisfying show.

Rudolph the Pissed-Off Reindeer runs through DECEMBER 20TH at the Alchemist Theatre in Bay View.

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