I'd never felt both sad and creeped out at the same time, but that strange feeling darkened my entire being during the final moments of WET's production of Feathers and Teeth, a 90-minute horror-comedy by Charise Castro Smith.
In content and style, Smith's play chimes with Max Porter's genre-defying novella, Grief Is the Thing With Feathers, which is itself a riff on Emily Dickinson's famous line, "Hope is the thing with feathers." But, whereas Porter seeks to find some hope in our bizarre, often surreal responses to grief, Smith finds all her tension and drama in the emotion's capacity to completely overwhelm us.
In the playbill, director Bobbin Ramsey quotes John Carpenter on horror films, which helpfully frames the emotional focus of the play: "There are two different stories in horror: internal and external. In external horror films, the evil comes from the outside, the other tribe, this thing in the darkness that we don't understand. Internal is the human heart." This play is about the darkness that comes from within.
The story focuses on Chris (Rachel Guyer-Mafune), a teenager who's grieving the death of her mother, Ellie (Shaudi Vahdat), who may or may not have been murdered on her death bed. Her father, Arthur (Brandon J. Simmons), started dating a nurse named Carol (Samie Spring Detzer) only two months after the mother's death, which raises Chris's suspicions and compounds her grief.
The action kicks into gear when Arthur bursts into the front door with blood on his hands. He's just run over...something...with his car. It's a little beast with big black eyes, fur, feathers—and teeth. Arthur thinks it could be an opossum or a squirrel or a ferret or a...something else. Like, maybe, a clue from Ellie about the true nature of her death. Or maybe a manifestation of Chris's grief and desire for revenge. Whatever it is, it's alive and it needs to be contained. Arthur decides to keep the creature in a cast iron pot until he sorts out who he should call. But Chris has other plans.
Pete Rush designed the visually striking set to look like a warped version of a kitchen from a 1970s sitcom. Garish wallpaper with yellow feathers all over it (h/t to the title, and maybe Charlotte Perkins Gilman), big brown appliances, sparkling clean linoleum floors, and a scary little crawlspace supporting it all. The set design perfectly estranges the world of the play. You know immediately that something fucked up is going to happen, it's just a matter of time.
That said, the plot twists and turns at a pretty even pace. So, while there are a few expertly timed jump-scares, the action mostly creeps along. The surprises aren't "surprises" so much as they are bits of previously withheld expository information that characters eventually reveal. But this is a common structural annoyance in all genres of horror, though, so it's not really a dealbreaker.
A few other structural choices don't do it for me either, though. In the very beginning of the play, Chris and Arthur exchange some incest vibes, but nothing ever comes of it. I'm grateful for the lack of follow-through there, if only for the sake the character's emotional life—incest, sexual abuse, and a dead mom is a lot to work through—but it seems strange to imply such a relationship early on and then completely abandon it.
Also, the audience learns about Chris's relationship with her mother through a series of monologues. Guyer-Mafune does what she can to make them lively, but they're really just exposition dumps that slow down the story.
But besides all that, the performances really sell the show. Detzer is delightfully diabolical as the nurse. A lesser actor may have overplayed the role, but Detzer nailed the hammy humor while bringing real depth to the character. Throughout the entire play you're wondering whether or not she's truly evil, or whether she's being completely misunderstood, which is a testament to Detzer's range and command of the stage.
Simmons is delightfully aloof as Arthur, and Guyer-Mafune perfectly projects teen rage and unhinged grief. Both are magnetic and unpredictable performers. Midway through the play, Schilling infuses fresh comic energy in his role as Hugo, Chris's German friend. His accent is so bad it's amazing, and his commitment to the bit is admirable.
Feathers and Teeth runs through Tax Day (April 15) at 12th Avenue Arts. Check it out if you want to laugh, shudder, and feel weepy all at the same time.