Considering the mass amounts of fake blood used in the production, Feathers and Teeth is the kind of play that risks seeming outrageously campy. The first time we meet Arthur (Darius Pierce), the protagonist's dad, he's up to his elbows in blood after a roadkill incident. He rushes into the kitchen with the remains of whatever he just hit squirming inside a roasting pot. Before a decision can be made about how to put the beast to rest, Arthur's 13-year-old daughter, Chris (played by real-life 13-year-old, Agatha Day Olson), waltzes into the kitchen and stabs the thing repeatedly with a butcher knife.
Karo syrup aside, the most outrageous horror of Feathers and Teeth is left off-screen (or at least inside the pot). But luckily, the camp is delivered with depth, cleverness and levity.
Take Olson's Chris, for instance, who could easily have been played as morbid and overserious. Instead, she is the brat we identify with, the ringleader of the other children in the play and a complex character whom we can't help but root for.
When the play begins, Chris has just lost her mother, Ellie. As coping mechanisms, she struts around the house in silver boots, rocks out to Zeppelin and Floyd, and wears her dead mother's dresses and jewelry. Adding to the complexity of her situation, her father has made his wife's cancer nurse, Carol (Sara Hennessy), his live-in lover. The triangulations of this fractured family unit weave a web of intrigue that seals the fate of father, daughter and, well, whatever Carol may turn out to be.
At first glance, Carol is the happy homemaker. Her portrayal of the poor girl stuck in a 1950s Midwest mindset helps us empathize as she grapples with the mores of 1978, and a rebellious, "hormonal" teenager. She has set her romantic sights on widower Arthur and his big, beautiful home—a set that takes such a beating that an entire team of assistants is needed to mop up the blood by play's end.
The creature in Carol's family pot has a taste for meat and blood, which eventually draws the interest of the 11-year-old German neighbor boy, Hugo (played by Dámaso J. Rodriguez, who is the director's son and shares his name). His accent and exclamations are a great source of humor, and moreover, Hugo, in his militaristic Scout uniform and helmet, underscores the fascistic subtext of Carol's old-fashioned household daydream.
But the creature is more than just a stand-in for a gremlin or the beast from the crate in Creepshow, it is a manifestation of the dread and grief suffered by everyone involved in Ellie's death. Though we never see exactly what's in the pot, it is described as having "feathers and teeth." Its inhuman emanations are artfully conjured by Nelda Reyes' over-the-top vocal performance. What Hugo calls the Teufel (German for "devil") manages to be an unseen force, a foil, and a character itself. The pot is buried twice, once by Arthur, once by Carol, yet it is always Chris who digs it back up to exacerbate their mourning.
It would be too simplistic, even condescending, to describe the play as "delightfully morbid." Far from trite, Feathers and Teeth tackles the drama of death and the horror of gore without ever wiping the smile, or the blood, off its face.
SEE IT: Feathers and Teeth plays at Artists Repertory Theatre, 1515 SW Morrison St., artistsrep.org. 7:30 pm Wednesday-Sunday and 2 pm Sunday, through April 2. Additional shows noon Wednesday, March 22, 7:30 pm Tuesday, March 28, 2:30 pm. No 7:30 pm show Sunday, April 2. $25-$50.