Most holiday traditions are warm, fuzzy affairs, meant to bring us together with loved ones, to remind us of all the good in our lives, and to celebrate the festive generosity known as the “Christmas spirit.”
And then there’s Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer.
Tucked away in one of my favorite performance spaces, the intimate Mary’s Attic, this annual performance from Hell in a Handbag Productions satirizes the 1967 Claymation Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer with glittery, over-the-top gay elves, a drunken Mrs. Claus, an abominable drag monster, and more. Swapping a red nose for crossdressing as Rudolph’s innate misfit quality connects the tale to contemporary LBGTQIA+ issues and refocuses the story on self-acceptance and -expression, rather than the original message that people will hate you for being different unless your difference benefits them personally. Glitter, sequins, satire, and unapologetic queerness all wrapped up in snarky Christmas bow: it seems like the perfect package. And yet.
It’s easy to see how this script was fresh when it had its first reading twenty years ago. Hell, it’s easy to see how it might have been fresh this year; at times I swore I saw glimpses of what this show was like two years ago, before the 2016 election began and all hell broke loose, politically and culturally. When I saw in Rudolph’s press release that playwright David Cerda “always adjusts the show to fit the current social climate,” I frowned. Oh, I thought. So they’re gonna make it about Trump.
And make it about Trump Cerda did. Santa has won the North Pole presidency, we are told at the beginning of the show, beating out Suzie Snowflake by a narrow and possibly illegal margin. He’s dumped Mrs. Claus for a younger woman, the dumb-as-nails Iwanka, played, bizarrely, by the playwright himself, who delivers equally bizarre performances as several other characters as well. The “Christmas News Network,” or CNN, is accused of peddling fake news. And so on and so on.
Aside from being the most obvious possible angle, this layering of the story of Trump over the story of Rudolph falls flat because it adds nothing new to the conversation. I wrote recently about the importance of familiar stories; if you’re going to twist a familiar story into a jingle bell-ridden reflection of the present political hellscape, you’d better have a damn good reason for doing so. Forever linking Santa Claus to Trump in your audience’s mind is not a move that should be made lightly.
And yet lightly it seems to have been made. The script for this 20th anniversary edition feels like a whole lot of politics got shoehorned into an otherwise entertaining script, and it would be one thing if these additions were full of incisive zingers or harsh satirical jabs. But they aren’t. At best, the references to the current administration earn a weak laugh, and at worst, they ruin what might otherwise be a fun “anti-holiday holiday show.” All the script really has to say about the era of Trump is that it’s bad. I’ve seen refrigerator magnets make smarter political statements.
In spite of the forced Trump-ism and some oddly prejudiced jokes in an otherwise progressive show (a cheap insult about the appearance of women in Northwest Indiana was especially jarring), several of the actors deliver excellent performances. Christea Parent tears up the stage as the punk-rock, gender non-conforming Clarisse, and Graham Thomas Heacock embodies sweet naivete and uninhibited fabulousness in equal measure as Rudolph. And Sydney Genco rocks the house as Elfina, the manager of the toy factory. Her sexy solo number, as well as the inclusion of a genderqueer Clarisse and the butch Yukon Cornelia, proves that Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer is doing better than most drag shows by catering to a larger portion of the LGBTQIA+ community than just gay men—we queer ladies get representation and a little eye candy, too.
Rudolph the Red-Hosed Reindeer frustrates me in a deep and very specific way: it could have been so good, but one major obstacle got in its way. In this case, that obstacle was the unnecessary layering of the Trump administration onto an otherwise fun, raunchy holiday show. Perhaps I’ll come see it again in four years when (I hope, I pray) we’ll be free of this political nightmare and drag shows about reindeer can return to the realm of light-hearted escapism where they belong.
Location: Mary’s Attic, 5400 N. Clark St., Chicago
Dates: Thursday, December 7 – Saturday, December 30, 2017
Curtain Times: Thursday, Fridays and Saturday at 7:30 pm; Sundays at 6 pm.
Please note: there will not be a performance on Sunday, December 24 (Christmas Eve); there will be an added performance on Wednesday, December 20 at 7:30 pm.
Tickets: $25 in advance, $30 at the door. VIP tickets with cocktail $40 and up. Group rates $20 for 10 or more. Tickets are currently on sale at the Hell in a Handbag website (through Brown Paper Tickets) or by calling (800) 838-3006.
All photos by Rick Aguilar Studios.