Imagine a family of three. The teen daughter sits parallel to the woman of the house at the dinner table and the well-meaning patriarch sits in between them. There's an overt tension in the air that the father cordially tries to dispel as the trio dines on Chinese takeout. And the evening's dinner topic isn't even the bloody clothes the trio is wearing.
That's one of the first whispers of the insanity to come in What If? Productions' latest project, Feathers and Teeth. It's a detriment to this outrageous play to reveal too many plot details, so we'll leave the story description at this: teenager Chris is reeling from the loss of her mother and the arrival of her father's new girlfriend just adds fuel to the fire she wants to start. But, Dad brings home something else in the form of an indescribable creature that's got a few surprises in store for the family. The plot doesn't walk, but runs in several directions, keeping the viewer guessing and asking who (or what) the real monster is, leading up to a genuinely shocking ending. "One thing I hope audiences will take home from this show is a feeling of simply being entertained while also finding about five different ways to interpret the surprise ending in the last few moments of the show," says director Kyle Barnette.
Written by Charise Castro Smith, the play is (much like the beast that the title references) a mixture of things that don't typically go together in nature. "This show is in the horror genre, for sure, but layered with so much more," says Barnette. "It's lots of fun, shocking, incredibly moving, and bloody all within a couple of pages of the script."
One of the main reasons Feathers and Teeth is such an oddity is that it fully embraces, among other genres, horror in the theater. "It's not the first sort of genre people expect or seek out when going to live theater which makes it all the more intriguing," says Barnette. Like with any genre, there are complications that come along with realizing this vision. "It's hard to really convincingly sell some gory horror live and on stage," says Barnette. "However, what is great about a script like this is that it is the best kind of horror, which is the power of suggestion."
The play loves to get psychologically screwy and not just in absurd character moments. Feathers and Teeth enjoys playing with the audience's expectations by jumping from forlorn to comedic to violent to satirical. In the end, more questions are raised than answered and the mysteries are used to heighten the fear.
That's not to say that it's all high-brow psychological torture. Theater-going gorehounds will be pleased to hear that Feathers and Teeth does not skimp on the red stuff. "Blood is always a pain in the ass and when you have a scene where blood projects up into an actor's faces from inside of something else, it's a challenge on so many levels," says Barnette. But, it was a challenge worth accepting, because Feathers and Teeth gets some mileage out of red dye and corn syrup. The play will also see the What If? team working with more practical effects. Projections during flashbacks and creature-feature sounds were a heavy part of developing this horror-comedy. "One of our actors in the show, Rob Duren, also happens to be a sound designer with lots of radio background, so he has been amazing in helping with all of the various monster sound effects in the show, and there are a ton," says Barnette.
Feathers and Teeth features a cast of only four, meaning each actor is required to walk a tightrope in this genre balancing act. "Lila Clark and Boris Pekar (who play kids Chris, and Hugo, respectively) are also products of Charleston Stage's Wings program for young actors and they are so well prepared," says Barnette. "They go through a lot of emotions and physical action in this show and both are total pros."
Since its first production in 2015, Feathers and Teeth has earned praise and criticism (but mostly praise) for its matricidal motifs, allusions to Hamlet, and splatter-theater aesthetic. According to Barnette, all the essential features and highlights of the play make it "perfect for What If?"