“What’s the moral of this story?”
Going into Sunday’s talkback, Feathers and Teeth director Dámaso Rodriguez had prepped this and other questions (perhaps to prevent audience meekness from forestalling the conversation? That’s happened before at Artists Rep).
“Trust no one,” someone ventured.
“Leave the pot buried,” suggested another audience member.
Then Rodriguez offered his own take: “Sometimes monsters win.”
This challenging, bloody dramedy by Charise Castro Smith is one of few to depict that literally. There are literal monsters with feathers and teeth, and though we never see them, we’re convinced of their presence by snarls, growls, and the clattering of the lid of the large cooking pot that’s meant to contain them. Much like Little Shop of Horrors‘ Audrey II, these creatures’ carnivorous appetites grow through the course of the story until (spoiler) they’re ready to prey on people. This sinister critter whimsy hearkens back to the plots of many ’80s movies, from Gremlins to Chuckie—as do the puddles of blood that bathe the stage and anoint all characters as somewhat complicit, from The Father’s first red-handed entrance to The Culprit’s final exit, flashing a bloody cold shoulder while walking out the door.
Aside from the gore, this is a family story of an aspiring stepmother, a sullen teenager, and their conflicted fiancee/father who’s trying to bring them together. Throw in an uptight German Boy Scout neighbor for added character and comedy. Agatha Day Olson plays the teen, Darius Pierce is the dad. Artists Rep mainstay Sara Hennessy plays Carol, and her son Dámaso J. Rodriguez plays the neighbor boy—and that name should sound familiar, because that kid is also director Dámaso Rodriguez’s son. Husband, wife and son all collaborating on this play adds a meta-dynamic of family to the show.
On Sunday, that situation also briefly raised hackles at the talkback, when an audience member commented that the boy’s German accent was “hard to understand” (note: this reviewer disagrees). The elder Rodriguez, who was leading the discussion as director, bristled. “That’s a hard thing to hear in this context,” he admitted, witnessing the moment his son, the youngest member of the cast, was subjected to perhaps his first blunt and subjective performance critique.
For the record, Dámaso J.’s Hugo Schmidt comes off as a fully formed character with a thick-but-decipherable German accent who wrestles three conflicting desires: to be a scout-like model citizen, to impress a girl, and to fight evil—all of which piles up to plenty for any eleven-year-old’s plate. Welcome to theater, Kid. Stay playful and trust your director.
Olson, 13, has had an unusual child acting career, appearing in several plays but (as noted at talkback) no kids’ shows. Moreover, her parts in grown-up plays have been more than mere walk-ons, and often starring roles, particularly in the genres of drama (Claire Willett’s Dear Galileo, Artists Rep’s The Miracle Worker) and suspense (The Reformers’ horror play The Turn). Oddly enough, Feathers and Teeth may be the most lighthearted play the adolescent has performed in to date, and in a way, that shows. The knifelike efficiency of movement and manner that Olson has wielded so deftly in drama/horror seem a bit cold and abrupt for the semi-comic character of Chris. Olson shows us Chris’s brooding grief and murderous intent, but doesn’t fully exploit her funnier facets as a sneering teen obsessed with Led Zeppelin, or as a young woman learning for the first time how to manipulate boys. Hopefully during this run, she’ll be able to loosen up and bask in the midnight sun of this black comedy. Regardless, age-appropriate casting of Hugo and Chris is a first for this play, as previous productions have used older actors in the youthful roles. Older actors in these roles would be comically absurd, and inherently less convincing. Casting kids as kids seems better.
Of course, both Olson and Damaso J. are far too young to have any living memory of the vintage elements of the show that serve as visual jokes. From the opening tableau it’s clear that we’re in a bygone time (1978, to be exact), because when else would a woman be cooking a pot roast for dinner while wearing a full-skirted housedress, chiffon apron and heels? When else would the man of the house make his entrance in a three-piece burgundy polyester leisure suit? When else would an avocado-colored rotary phone ring? The adults in the room present the historical context as kitsch—particularly Hennessy, who plays two layers: her character Carol, plus the exaggerated feminine role that goes with Carol’s clothes. Of course, Carol sometimes breaks her wifey meta-character, as even the most coquettish lady naturally must.
Meanwhile, Darius Pierce, whether in a leisure suit or an elf suit, seems to have developed a repertoire of Darius-Pierce-isms that pervade each performance. He splays his fingers, flutters his hands, and quizzically knits his brow in a grand attempt to deflect unease and reconcile disparate urges. That works well here as his character, the fretful widowed middleman Arthur, scrambles to appease both his daughter and his wife-to-be.
But this show also has two surprise stars that aren’t exactly actors, but rather tech enhancements that help buoy the story as much as or more than the four main characters. They’re the unusually dynamic pot of monsters, and the projections of Chris’s memories of her mother. Well, the pot of monsters is played by an unseen actor—yes, you heard that right; rather than being a collection of pre-recorded sound effects and remote-controlled prop cues, the pot of monsters is played live—by the always intense, frequently supernatural, and often discomfiting Nelda Reyes. The latter device, an animation of sophomoric-looking portraits that a deep-thinking 13-year-old might draw of herself and her late mother in a notebook—is designed by Andrés Alcalá to drift across the kitchen windows of the set whenever Chris reminisces.
In contrast to these technical triumphs, a few details of blocking may be notably askew, like an open door in a kitchen that’s supposedly filling up with gas, a knife that could easily be reached being strained-for, or rock music that’s supposed to be blaring from a teen’s room instead whispering daintily from the wings. Hopefully these errata will resolve over the run. In a plot where we’re already convinced of a pot full of monsters, why entertain any disbelief?
To summarize, what will you get out of Feathers and Teeth? A few laughs, some cute kitsch, a mature performance from two young actors, and some moral ambiguity to chew over later like so much burnt pot roast. Not for the fainthearted, but generally worth a gnash.
Feathers and Teeth continues through April 2 at Artists Repertory Theatre on the Morrison Stage. Ticket and schedule information here.