Review: RUDOLPH THE RED-HOSED REINDEER at Hell in a Handbag

Review: RUDOLPH THE RED-HOSED REINDEER at Hell in a Handbag

Allison Petrillo with (back, l to r) Chase Wheaton-Werle, Michael Rawls, Terry McCarthy, Colin Funk and Sydney Genco. Photo by Rick Aguilar Studios.

By Aaron Lockman

RUDOLPH THE RED-HOSED REINDEER takes place on a cramped yet colorful stage, decorated with the appropriate amount of Christmas kitsch, and begins with Santa Claus (Michael Hampton) deciding to run for President of the North Pole. His campaign is enormously unpopular and offensive, he wins on a technicality, and he’s an obvious parody of a certain Hairy Tangerine in the White House, complete with his own reindeer version of Kellyanne Conway. I understand, of course, that this twenty-year-old show pokes fun at whatever political era it’s being performed in. The problem, however, is that comedy involving our president’s childish, horrifying, and legitimately dangerous antics feels incredibly empty nowadays. This is partly because this administration parodies itself, and partly because every time somebody mentions our president’s name in this country, he gets a massive erection.

However, as the show progresses, we get some witty lyrics set to catchy music, some clever jokes (including an admittedly hilarious gag about Russian hackers), and a constant string of fourth-wall breaks that manages to be endearing for the most part. The actors are on top of their game, dancing and singing well, and managing to improvise their own comedic moments that keep the show engaging despite a script that, while witty, feels rather slapdash and poorly assembled.

As Act One continues, we slowly meet our heroes. Rudolph (played charmingly by Graham Thomas Heacock) is born to his reindeer parents in the bourgeois, middle-class suburbs of the North Pole, and immediately displays a penchant for cross-dressing, wearing heels, and being all-around fabulous, much to his parents’ dismay. Chase Wheaton-Werle and Allison Petrillo get some funny material as Rudolph’s parents, as they try desperately to conform Rudolph to the heteronormative, toxically masculine norms of the neighborhood. Meanwhile, Herbie the Elf, played by a delightfully nasal Kristopher Bottrall, is having trouble fitting in with the other elves. They all want to talk about Beyoncé and musical theater, and to conform him to a very specific gay stereotype – but Herbie just wants to live a quiet life as a dentist.

Now, I’m trying not to read too much into this play. I knew going in that this was supposed to be a crazy, irreverent Christmas romp, that the plot wouldn’t make much sense, that I was there for the singing and dancing and fabulous costumes (which are fabulous, by the way – Kate Setzer Kamphausen does an impressive job of balancing the visual style of the characters from the original film with the play’s drag queen aesthetic). But as Act One unfolded, I couldn’t help but notice an intriguing paradigm being set up.

We essentially have three plots:

  1. Ruth Claus, the former Mrs. Claus, is trying to come into her own after her divorce (this part is underwritten and underwhelming, but is saved by Tommy Bullington’s impressive and hilarious diva posturing).
  2. Rudolph is trying to fit into “straight” reindeer culture by denying who he is.
  3. Herbie is trying to fit into “gay” elf culture by denying who he is. Ironically, I found Herbie the most relatable character as I, a queer individual unfamiliar with queer culture, watched endless references fly straight over my head while the audience howled with laughter.

In Herbie, you have a protagonist who is potentially poised to examine some troubling trends in the gay community – the pressure for gay men to act a certain way in order to be truly gay, the idealization of the muscular ingénue body type, the hypocritical lack of acceptance that leads to gay people perpetuating racism, body-shaming, and even biphobia. And to make this perfectly clear, you have the parallel of Rudolph – a drag queen who would be immediately accepted in Herbie’s community, but is being rejected in his own for all the reasons we’re more accustomed to seeing: homophobia, transphobia, and fear of difference.

I was disappointed, but not entirely surprised, when this intriguing setup was completely abandoned as we neared the end of Act One. I think I was probably letting my artsy, pretentious critic side get the best of me, grasping for meaning in a genre which delights in lack of meaning. And that’s fine; not every show has to have a point, as long as it’s good fun.

And RUDOLPH THE RED-HOSED REINDEER is certainly good fun. . . for about an hour.

My theatergoing companion shared an apt metaphor with me during intermission: this show is like forcing yourself to eat an enormous amount of chocolate ganache. Chocolate ganache is delightful in small quantities; it’s thick, creamy, and delicious, and its complete lack of nutritional value gives you a guilty thrill. But ganache for breakfast, lunch, and dinner will eventually make you hate the stuff.

This show started at 7:30. We weren’t out of there until nearly 10, and boy did it feel like it. By intermission, I couldn’t believe that there was more plot that had yet to happen. By the middle of Act Two, I no longer had any idea what was going on, what anyone was trying to achieve, or where the action was taking place. Sadly, the style of the piece just isn’t sustainable for the runtime, and as the show dragged on I grew more and more irritated with it. The length, combined with a few fatphobic, agender-phobic, and Nazi-related jokes that seem to espouse the reprehensible attitude of “It’s okay for me to be offensive because I’m gay!” basically sunk the whole ship.

I went into this show really wanting to love it – several acquaintances of mine raved about it, and it’s a great premise. And ultimately, what saves RUDOLPH from the scrap heap is the inherent joy at work here. Throughout, the excitement, energy, and delightful goofiness of the entire cast shine through. These are people who clearly love what they do, and do it exceedingly well.

It’s a shame then that what they’re doing falls unbelievably flat, mostly due to an uninspired, flaccid script that never ends.

About author

Aaron Lockman

Aaron Lockman is an actor and playwright recently graduated from Columbia College Chicago. You can see him in The Living Room’s upcoming DaDa Solo show, and you can hear his voice in the Audible productions of Locke and Key and The X-Files, as well as on the podcast The Audio Diary of Aaron Lockman

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