Feathers and Teeth

by Meg Currell

EDGE Media Network Contributor

Wednesday March 22, 2017

Sara Hennessy, Agatha Olson, Darius Pierce
Sara Hennessy, Agatha Olson, Darius Pierce  

"Feathers and Teeth" is a carefully constructed horror story about a grieving young girl and her family's attempt to move forward after her mother's death. Set in the already drab and unpleasant '70s, the show uses the "perfect family" tableau as a major plot stirrer, and casts the rebellious pre-teen as an agent of change.

Agatha Day Olson, as the girl, was the main attraction for me. Brilliant as Helen Keller in "The Miracle Worker," I've been eager to see her in larger roles. She does not disappoint as Chris, the child of a hippie who struts around in her mother's old clothes, challenging her spineless father, Arthur, and his ersatz fiancé, Carol, as they leap past the mourning period directly into a new romance.

Arthur, played by another favorite Darius Pierce, is a hapless, confused, easily led father who doesn't know how badly he's being used. Sara Hennessy is Carol, the nurse cum fiancé who may or may not have played a part in the death of Chris' mother.

As Chris pushes back against the too-fast relationship, her father runs over some wild animal and attempts to bury it in the back yard. When the animal carcass is brought into the house, the set becomes covered with blood, and director Damaso Rodriguez clearly reveled in the carnage. But what makes a horror story truly scary isn't just the depiction of buckets of blood, it's a pervasive sense of terror of what might be true beyond what we can see. That terror is never apparent in "Feathers and Teeth."

The moments that connect with true emotion, not surprisingly, are those where Chris attempts to speak to her dead mother. The play drops into her grief -- through the talents of Agatha Day Olson -- profoundly, and Chris' anger at her father's betrayal makes her a wild creature. Even when she's silent, Olson tells epic tales with her eyes, a stunning ability for a stage actor, who doesn't get to rely on camera close-ups to show what she's thinking.

I wish director Damaso Rodriguez had employed some kind of microphone, because the overly-bold effect of every actor shouting their lines blurred the intent of the dialogue. And I was baffled about the choice to make the neighbor boy German; because of his dialect, it was difficult to understand about half of what he was saying, and his contribution of his grandmother's tale about the fabled monster could easily have been told without the boy having an accent.

There are some wonderful, inventive moments in this play, but I was annoyed more often than engaged. Why do the characters say each others' names after every line in the same scene? "That's not right, Arthur," "I was just saying that, Carol," "I don't understand, Arthur," "Let's get rid of this pot, Carol," The characters haven't lost track of who they're talking to, have they? I saw no reason either within the play or in the context of camp/horror genre for this abrasive habit, and it continued all the way to the end.

And why did Chris perform the elaborate dance after tying up her stepmother? It didn't fit her character or further the plot in any discernable way. And why did Carol bleed when she passed out from being sprayed with cleaner or bug spray? I couldn't piece together answers to any of these questions.

The interruption of my suspension of disbelief gave me plenty of time to admire the set, which was meticulously created in the style of Brady Bunch-era housing. The special effects of the "creatures" (true identities unknown) were fascinating; the voices of multiple chomping/tweeting/squeaking/gnashing nasties in a pot (delivered offstage by Nelda Reyes) were deliciously unpleasant.

And one ultra-gory scene in particular was done to tremendous effect; kudos to Scenic Director Megan Wilkerson, Props Master Emily Wilken, and Rodriquez for creating that viscous demolition. Despite these stagecraft treasures, the play did not deliver on the kind of gripping horror I had hoped for from a cast and crew with these bona fides.

"Feathers and Teeth" runs through April 2 at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison St., Portland, OR 97205. For tickets and information, call 503-241-1278 or visit http://www.artistsrep.org/onstage/201617-season/feathers-and-teeth/

Meg Currell is a freelance author based in Portland, where she moved for the coffee and mountain views. With a background in literature and music, she explores dance, concerts and DIY with equal enthusiasm. She is currently at work on a collection of short stories.