Andrés Alcalá

Feathers and Teeth: monsters win

Artists Rep's challenging, bloody dramedy updates '80s gore flicks with a few laughs, some moral ambiguity, and a twist of kitsch

“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.

Olson, Pierce, and Hennessy, breaking bread and hearts. Photo: Russell J Young

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.

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The profound ecstasy of a free breath

Artists Rep's taut "Exiles" rides a tense and complex freedom boat out of Castro's Cuba, toward … what?

In the iconography created for us by the advertising industry, America is epitomized by those canonical products of wholesomeness: baseball, hot dogs, apple pie, and Chevrolet. Strange, though, that the gods of Madison Avenue, with all their insight into our values and desires, did not think to include Vicks VapoRub.

For one of the characters in the Carlos Lacámara play Exiles, which opened Saturday night at Artists Rep, Vicks is one of those little – we might foolishly say negligible – things that represent a time past, a world changed and a life lost.

Living in Castro’s Cuba, this poor man has spent 20 years suffering the twin repressions of communism and hay fever.

It doesn’t help, of course, that he’s also profoundly mentally ill. So much so that when Exiles opens, he is tied to the railing of the sport-fishing boat where the play’s main action takes place. So much so that the script identifies him only as “the Lunatic.”

Bobby Bermea, taking a seat on the boat toward Vicks: the cogent Lunatic. Photo: Owen Carey

Bobby Bermea, taking a seat on the boat toward Vicks: the cogent Lunatic. Photo: Owen Carey

Nonetheless, he’s articulate in his derangement, so that the insidious forces of consumerism and nasal congestion lead him not just to memories of Vicks but to an almost Jeffersonian longing for “the profound ecstasy of a free breath.” Whereupon the even more insidious force of communist indoctrination quickly offers up an equally eloquent corrective: “That’s the pipe-dream that tempts us away from the path of virtue.”

As it turns out, freedom, virtue, and the prices we pay for them are the central issues in Exiles, a gripping combination of political drama and family squabble, given a taut, vivid production here by artistic director Dámaso Rodriguez.

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