Being a kid can be scary, but it's downright horrifying when a pack of flesh-eating monsters turns up at your house and your new stepmom-to-be might be a demon.
In Charise Castro Smith's awesomely weird horror-comedy Feathers and Teeth, there's another layer of terror: suburban 1970s style. Kitchen Dog Theater mixes perky artificiality and sinister pacing for a regional premiere that keeps its audiences guessing (and laughing and shuddering and gasping) while an unusual family's dynamics go off the rails.
This isn't just the regional premiere of Smith's new play; KDT is only the second company to produce it after its Goodman Theatre debut in Chicago last year. Why more companies haven't pounced on the material is a mystery. In its swift 90 minutes, the script manages to unfurl a tale that's both preposterous and wholly relatable, about an angsty pre-teen whose mother's recent death is made even more raw by her father's rapid engagement to the nurse, Carol, who cared for her.
Or killed her, if you go with the girl's theory. Feathers and Teeth hinges on the role of young Chris, and KDT couldn't have found a better match than Dakota Ratliff. Sullen and sassy, Ratliff relishes Chris' "grieving daughter" status as an excuse to mouth off to the copper-haired Carol, but also allows us to see the girl's deep inner pain that's not even close to healing yet.
Morgan Lauré, poured into '70s fashion so bootylicious she's one step away from a vintage porno (kudos go to costume designer Melissa Panzarello), gets Carol's annoyingly perfect facade just right. She's understanding and gentle when Chris lashes out, supportive and demur when manipulating her beau Arthur (Matt Lyle), and she-bot creepy when no one else is around. It's these quick personality changes that reinforce the Twilight Zone-aura director Lee Trull has constructed.
So when Arthur hits an unidentifiable creature with his car at the top of the show, the poor beast's backyard funeral is just the excuse we need to watch this trio unravel. Lyle does nebbish well, especially when bolstered by a scraggly mustache and limp comb-over. His Arthur is most certainly not in charge here, but his utter conviction that he's still man of the house keeps him from being more than just scenery. (There's all the beige linoleum you could ever want in Clare Floyd DeVries' fine set, by the way.)
But like in any good horror flick, the monster doesn't stay dead. In fact, it multiples, growing ever hungrier for flesh and demanding its feedings like a squeaky, garbled Audrey II from Little Shop of Horrors. John M. Flores keeps the jump-scares coming with well-relegated booms and bangs, which are complemented by Suzanne Lavender's lighting.
The addition of neighbor boy Hugo, whom Parker Gray gives a hilarious German accent and the inability to understand nuance, might have felt like a left-field grab if Smith's script didn't incorporate him so deftly. He's our proxy, staring wide-eyed at this nightmare yet powerless to halt or escape from it. He's also our safe comic relief, reminding us that it's okay and even encouraged to laugh at the inappropriateness that's being laid out for our amusement. Because, sometimes, what else can you do but laugh through the screams?
Kitchen Dog Theater's production of Feathers and Teeth runs at Trinity River Arts Center through December 17.