No genre conveys the unique storytelling power of theater quite to the extent of horror. Feathers and Teeth at the Goodman Theater is a near-perfect synchronization of sound and visuals that proves that our greatest fears lie just out of our sight rather than within our grasp.
Among the highlights of Feathers and Teeth is the presence of a Foley Artist (Carolyn Hoerdemann) situated in a second-story booth overlooking the play’s action. The Foley Artist, dressed like a host from a late-night horror movie marathon, uses vocals and everyday utensils to vivify hungry little predators that are all the scarier because they are heard but never seen by the audience. More importantly, the Foley Artist serves as a disc jockey, playing Nixon-era records like The Who’s “Love, Reign O’er Me” to illustrate the complex emotions felt by Chris (Olivia Cygan), the teenage protagonist tortured both by her mother Ellie’s recent death and by her father’s decision to romance Ellie’s nurse Carol (Christina Hall).
Carol is a caricature of the 1960’s housewife already outdated in the early 1970’s. In the opening scene she manages to simultaneously burn a pot roast and hold a one-sided conversation with hateful Chris without losing her cheery optimism. Carol’s first test begins when Arthur (Eric Slater) arrives home from a day of work with blood on his hands. He has accidentally run over an unknown animal in the front yard, and Carol is dismayed when Arthur grabs her beloved mother’s cast-iron pot to bring the suffering animal into the house.
This monster—described as being all feathers and teeth—and her soon-to-be-birthed young sit center stage, often shaking and murmuring hungrily in their pot as the conflicts between Chris and Carol erupt. Chris becomes convinced that Carol represents supernatural evil, and Carol fears that her own life may be in danger. Meanwhile, Arthur and Hugo (Jordan Brodess), a neighborhood nerd with a crush on Chris, shift their allegiances between the two women and ultimately find themselves face-to-face with sheer terror.
In most horror movies and television shows, the climaxes are the scenes of violence. Directors bring the viewers inches away from the dripping blood, and the result is often more disgusting than provocative. Horror plays do not have the advantage—or rather, the disadvantage—of contriving close-ups for audience reactions.
Consider the terrifying moment when the title character in The Woman in Black rocks frantically in her chair, an increasing heartbeat pulsing through the audience with each shift back and forth. Or consider the moment when Benedict Cumberpatch’s Franskenstein (seen locally via a National Theater Live broadcast) emerges from a grotesque membrane and squirms around the stage with unpracticed motor skills. Feathers and Teeth showcases its own stand-out scene, and it involves no blood or gore. Chris sits alone at the dinner table with a tape recorder. She and the Foley Artist press “play,” and we all listen to a young Chris and her mother Ellie singing and giggling through their special version of Bob Dylan’s “Mr. Tambourine Man.” The melody is sweet, but the effect is chilling as we remember the demons that Chris must face alone.
Whether these scary chicken-piranha-hybrids (and likely cousins to Audrey II) ultimately win is of little consequence. In Charise Castro Smith’s powerful script, the dark side of human nature remains the true antagonist, and that topic will hopefully inspire horror plays for many years to come.