There's a new kid on Buffalo's ever-expanding theater block.
John Kehoe's The Francis Bacon Experiment, barely into its debut stage season, has found a home at The Wasteland Theater, an upstairs, grungy but livable space at 700 Main St., steps from the soon-to-be-reborn Studio Arena. According to Kehoe, FBE aims to be the "illegitimate stepchild of Buffalo theater." Well, it's off to a good start.
The young company, born as a comedy improv group four years ago, presented Kehoe's "420: The Musical" this past September and plans two more productions in the coming new year. Right now, in some timely scheduling, it's offering a night of laughter of a different sort, dark and deviant comic turns, with moments of chuckle and nervous giggles but ultimately, in the late going, no smiles whatsoever. The work is titled "The Eight: Reindeer Monologues," by Jeff Goode.
It's a holiday tale like no other – a Time Out New York critic once said that the play "put the ‘X' in Xmas" – and one that I'm sure has earned chimney stockings full of coal for the playwright since its inception in 1994.
The premise is this: a sex scandal has struck the North Pole and no one, literally, has been left untouched. Santa has been accused by Vixen, one of the "elite eight," Santa's sled flyers, of rape. Santa apparently has this thing for reindeer – go ask Rudolph, old red-nose, and he'll rant about a whole different set of reindeer games. And now that charges are public, sordid testimony is coming forth from other does and even from some elves, indicting the fat, jolly guy and Mrs. Claus, whose antics at the annual Christmas party are the stuff of legend. Santa is the main culprit, though. As one reindeer notes, Santa regularly disregarded the sacrosanct axiom: "When a doe says no, she means no!"
One by one, the deer tell their stories, at first funny and ridiculous: the militant Dasher, gay Cupid, vile newcomer Hollywood. Voice-of-reason Blitzen sounds the first real alarm of trouble in Toyland – Vixen's ordeal surfaces – then an apologist, Comet, says no, not Santa. He's soon refuted by Dancer and damned by Donner, Rudolph's dad, who feels used and guilty of not heeding warning signs of perverse behavior by a worldwide icon.
By the time Vixen takes center stage to tell her side of things, "Reindeer Monologues" is into heavy territory. This is not naughty or nice anymore. Just creepy.
Director Kehoe's cast – Jason E. Robinson, Todd Fuller, Mike Schneggenburger, Kim Bojanowski (a believable Blitzen), Sarah Rose Marie, Thorin Vallentin's troubled, sad and heartfelt Donner and Bekki Sliwa, as victim doe Vixen, and Kehoe himself, filling in on opening night as Comet – handle all of this unevenly but appropriately, even though they never interact, a flaw not of their making.
The comedy, and there's ample, flows naturally, never forced. Silliness triumphs. The serious and the bothersome minutes, while they belie the company's comedic genes, are played knowingly straight. Kehoe and his cast get it. They give their young and eager audiences something to take home.
The night is lurid – leave the kids at home – but Francis Bacon Experiment's "Monologues," despite lost lines, loose ends and a barebones, patchwork look about its prurient themes, is crude but worthy. There are problems but there's promise in the mix.
"The Eight: Reindeer Monologues"
2 and 1/2 stars (Out of four)
Presented by the Francis Bacon Experiment through Dec. 8 in the Wasteland Theater, 700 Main St.
Tickets are $15-$20. Call 348-2005.