Theater & art

Orphans get elfish with ‘Rudolph the Red Necked Reindeer’

Tim Lawton (as Santa), Grace Carney, and Jesse James Wood (as Rudolph) in the Gold Dust Orphans’s “Rudolph the Red Necked Reindeer.”
Michael von Redlich
Tim Lawton (as Santa), Grace Carney, and Jesse James Wood (as Rudolph) in the Gold Dust Orphans’s “Rudolph the Red Necked Reindeer.”

In Boston, the Orphans really get to work at Christmastime.

It’s not as Dickensian as it sounds, however. We’re talking about the Gold Dust Orphans, Ryan Landry’s long-running incubator of theatrical fabulousness.

This year Landry rolls out a new holiday show, “Rudolph the Red Necked Reindeer.” Replete with the Orphans’ trademark drag performances and raunchy parody, it explodes the 1964 Rankin-Bass animated Christmas special, “Rudolph the Red-Nosed Reindeer.”


In Landry’s version, Rudolph is an often shirtless hunk, and his rich parents, Thurston and Lovey Howell, are ashamed of his glowing red neck. This is the kind of show where Santa is, as Landry says, “a real bad stoner,” Mrs. Claus would fit right in on “The Real Housewives of New Jersey,” and Frosty the Snowman has had a sex change.

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“Instead of Yukon Cornelius, the prospector guy — I thought he was kind of boring, so we’re going to have Drew Barrymore instead,” Landry says. “Her dogsled is pulled by E.T.”

Landry is particularly enthused about Jesse James Wood, a relative newcomer who grew up in Marshfield and has been cast as Rudolph. “He’s never seen an Orphans show, and he’s just been thrown into it,” Landry says.

“Rudolph is supposed to be a sexy redneck, and there aren’t a lot of rednecks in Boston, and I had to find somebody who had that rough stuff going, and I think Jesse’s got it,” he says. “All the gays in the company, all the real girls in the company, they’re all in love with him.”

Wood’s costars include Olive Another as Herbie the Proctologist, Gene Dante as both Thurston Howell and “Prancer, the gay reindeer that sounds like Paul Lynde,” Liza Lott as Drew Barrymore, and Landry, doubling as Lovey Howell and the foreman of the elves.


The annual Christmas show is not only an Orphans tradition but a reliable contributor to the troupe’s bottom line. Each runs for two holiday seasons. “The first year of a Christmas show is huge,” Landry says. In the second year, it’s a shorter run and the box office drops about 20 percent, but expenses plummet 50 to 75 percent because necessities like costumes and sets already exist.

There’s a time-consuming item with a fatter budget on Landry’s schedule now, too: the approaching spring production of his play “M” at the Huntington Theatre Company, where he was a playwriting fellow.

“The Orphans have been a little sad because we haven’t been putting out as much as we usually do,” Landry says, “but I tell them [‘M’] has the potential to go to New York and be something bigger and only be good for us in the long run.”

In the meantime, one of those who works to bring the fabulousness despite the Orphans’ low budgets is costume designer and sometime performer Scott Martino.

The Rankin-Bass oeuvre has been a Landry inspiration for a long time, Martino says. “I love stuff like this because it’s not reality. You can play with it. It’s actually easier,” he says. “I get excited about stuff like this because it can be crazy — and covered in glitter, which is fine.”


A harder challenge is presented by shows like the Orphans’ upcoming “Mildred Fierce,” which requires beautiful clothes tailored to a very specific period look, he says. That means research: watching movies, poring over books, and searching online for images.

Martino and Landry have been married since 2008, but they’ve been a couple since 1995, shortly before the Orphans were founded. Martino has been doing the costumes ever since: “I was the only one who knew how to run a sewing machine.”

He does buy some items, and if you see a really beautiful gown or frock in an Orphans show, he says, it probably comes from Daniel Faucher Couture in the South End. Faucher regularly attends Orphans shows and sometimes provides them old stock or samples, says Martino. Mostly, though, it’s up to him.

For “Mrs. Grinchley’s Christmas Carol,” the ultimately rewarding last-minute job of making “the big Grinch puppet suit” fell to Martino. For “Rudolph the Red Necked Reindeer,” part of his task is to echo the Rankin-Bass elves. “They actually don’t look like Christmas elves,” he says. “They’re dressed in blue and pink.” Which means grabbing those costumes off the rack is not an option. But, like the other Orphans, Martino is used to spinning glamour out of almost nothing.

“I’m a one-man band with no budget,” he says, “so I have to get crafty.”

Joel Brown can be reached at