Directed by Henry Godinez
Produced by Goodman Theatre
An Elaborate Dark Comedy Thriller of Camp and Circumstance
Goodman Theatre opens its 2015/2016 Season in its Owen Theatre this week with Charise Castro Smith’s Feathers and Teeth, a campy dark comedy thriller about a grieving daughter, her father’s bubbly new fiancé, and a pot of mysterious, carnivorous creatures. Goodman embraces its first foray into horror theatre with the professionally elaborate design one has come to expect from its productions, and yet, at times, I felt the surplus of effects was compensating for flagging elements in the script, which, in its best moments, rode its wave of sit-com camp, and, in its worst, floundered in attempts to evoke pathos.
As you can tell by the distinctive 70s style of the kitchen and the rock sounds of Chris’ (Olivia Cygan) radio, Feathers and Teeth invites you back to the late 70s. Just two months previous, Chris’ mother Ellie (Ali Burch) died of breast cancer, and now, though she is obviously still in grieving, her father, Arthur (Eric Slater), has already invited a new fiancé into their home. To make the matter even worse, that woman is none other than the nurse who cared for the dying mother: Carol (Christina Hall). Frailty, thy name is father.
While Chris is psychologically reeling from Carol’s assumption of her mother’s role, a strange creature is brought into the mix after Arthur hits it with his car. Though they bury it, the creature(s) mysteriously returns from the earth, leading Chris to then see it as a sign from her dead mother, with whom she attempts to communicate in a kind of séance. The message seems crystal clear to Chris: something indeed is rotten in the state of Denmark. So, with the help of her “uncool” German friend Hugo (Jordan Brodess), she begins her plot to clean house of the uninvited “vermin” and return order to her life.
As with all Goodman productions, the production quality of Feathers and Teeth is awesome: a Foley Artist (Carolyn Hoerdemann) creates sound effects live from a suspended platform; the scenic design by Kevin Depinet flawlessly creates an eerie 70s space complete with an avocado- and harvest gold-colored kitchen and a dingy, claustrophobic crawl space; the sound design by Mikhail Fiksel evokes just the right emotion to complement the action with 70s rock hits; and one mustn’t leave out the alternatingly cheery and foreboding lighting design by Jesse Klug, and the clever inclusion of shadow puppets that periodically appear to conjure imagery for Chris’ narration (designed by Andrea Everman).
The script, however, feels a bit rough. Although campy humor isn’t to my personal taste, I do think the writing nails this particular style of humor and would be enjoyable to those who do appreciate it. Yet the inescapable sit-com feel of the show, while adding a unique layer to the play and complementing the style of humor, did more to detract from the storytelling by way of distancing me from the action. On account of this, not only did I not find the play particularly “thrilling” or “bone-chilling” (apart from some anxious moments involving knife aerobics), but the more sincerely emotional element of the play (that is, Chris’ grief) did not affect me at all. Moreover, the three monologues that were perhaps intended to evoke that sympathy were the most trying parts of the play, filling the audience’s ear with expositional content in order to give context for her grief rather than actually causing me to feel it. Were it not for the delightful distraction of the shadow puppetry during these monologues, Smith would have lost me completely. Instead, rather than a sympathetic character, Chris remained an abrasively antagonistic nuisance, even to the play’s shocking end.
Nevertheless, weaknesses in the script notwithstanding, the production as a whole offers an undoubtedly original and multifarious theatrical experience. Christina Hall as Carol finds layers in her character that provide much-appreciated substance to her seemingly airy, buoyant nurse; and Jordan Brodess as Hugo delivers precision comedic timing to make him the most earnestly humorous and enjoyable character of play (perhaps because he was the least campy). Even more fascinating was watching Carolyn Hoerdemann spin vinyl discs, dance, and create live effects while she danced in her long hair. Add to all this the production’s expressive use of 70s rock and the shadow puppetry designed by Andrea Everman, and you have a production quite unlike any other currently playing, making for, at the very least, an entertaining evening to talk about.
Playing at the Goodman Theatre’s Owen Theatre, 170 N Dearborn St., Chicago. Tichets are $10-$40, with discounts available. For tickets and information call the box office at 312-443-3800, or visit GoodmanTheatre.org/Feathers. Performances are Wednesdays and Thursdays at 7:30 pm, Fridays at 8:00 pm, Saturdays at 2:00 pm and 8:00 pm, and Sundays at 2:00 pm and 7:30 pm through October 18th (Exceptions: No 7:30 pm performance on 10/4 and 10/18; additional 2:00 pm performance on 10/8; additional 7:30 pm performance on 10/12). Running time is 90 minutes with no intermission.