Dallas — It’s already awful to lose your mom to cancer when you’re barely 13. But what if your sweet, inept dad falls for the sexy nurse who took care of poor Mom on her deathbed? And what if now your only living parent is about to marry this trashy, self-serving woman and make her your stepmother? Help! Scream! War!
That’s the fraught and frightening premise of Charise Castro Smith’s Feathers and Teeth, a fascinating dark comedy about the veiled forms of fear, in its regional premiere at Kitchen Dog Theater. Director Lee Trull delivers an emotionally taut and spooky 80-minute show with a first-rate cast that has you laughing nervously one moment, and clinching your hands in horror the next. Really.
The playwright’s genre-bending work, which premiered last year at Chicago’s Goodman Theatre, came to their development program through the prestigious Yale School of Drama. She was also a writer for TV’s Devious Maids, the canceled mayhem-and-murder drama about Latino maids in swank Hollywood homes. She is currently developing a new drama series for ABC, per the program notes. This pithy, promising résumé produces some fireworks here.
Smith’s swift fable of a teenager’s raw grief, a stockpot full of meat-eating monster babies and an in-your-face bitch moving in and making out with her dad is a visceral gut-punch. So how come we’re laughing? Because we’re flummoxed. The playwright presents her story in the form of a 1970’s parody. The characters are at once familiar and strange. We’re distanced just enough to laugh at the bizarre incidents, and the grief-gripped family is so stylized, we giggle at their determined dinnertime rituals.
Angry, stricken teenager Chris (dynamite Dakota Ratliff in elfin brat mode) stomps into the kitchen, furnished with a yellow Formica table and chairs and matching fridge, in Clare Floyd DeVries’s period set design. Below the kitchen is a crawl space, the lights-out scene of terror and shaky laughter.
Chris has been mourning her mother Elly’s death for two months. Her wannabe stepmother, Carol (a long-legged, fluttery, do-me-now Morgan Lauré), is wringing her hands over a half-dead driveway kill perpetrated by Chris’s dweeby daddy Arthur (a hilariously hapless Matt Lyle), who has brought the critter into the house in a stockpot. Hold on; it gets zanier.
Bold, ruthless Chris grabs a knife off the counter and stabs the inner wailings of the pot until it’s all quiet. We're off and flabbergasted.
Ratliff’s furious, heartbroken Chris embodies not only the animal pain, but the feathered hope of the show, in her wonderful scenes recalling her mother’s life as a coffee shop singer in the ’60s in California. We see images in childlike art of a pretty Elly, as she meets the Vietnam vet who will become Chris’s father, thanks to touching art by projections designer Shawn Magill. Chris turns on her tape recorder, lights a prayer candle, and listens to Elly’s voice singing, “Mr. Tambourine Man.” Ah.
Realities—and comedy—intrude in the form of Carol’s heart-shaped derrière, outfitted in costume designer Melissa Panzarello’s tight, bell-shaped denims, as she traipses around the kitchen with her burnt pot roast, followed by a sexmatized Arthur.
Grief-stricken Chris is convinced Carol is the very source of her sorrow, an evil she must confront with all the energy and weapons of a bright, bereaved brat. She even commands the help of her curious, uncool classmate, a boy scout named Hugo Schmidt, played by a hilarious knock-kneed Parker Gray, squealing for help in a German accent.
Lyle’s Arthur is so straight-up ’70s in his plant manager’s cheap suit and big glasses, you laugh when he walks onstage. He loves Chris, but just can’t take his eyes off the prize of Carol’s ass long enough to hear his daughter’s desperate pleas.
Lauré’s Carol is a mesmerizing blend of 70’s parody of what a good housefrau should be, in terms of making dinner and being cute as pie, and a calculating stepmother. Or is she? Are her desperate and loving overtures to Chris sincere? How much of poor Carol’s persona is projected upon her by her lover’s viciously angry child?
The question is kept in the balance, like a quivering Blair Witch camera, until the very end. Is seeing believing?