Nobody gives presents to celebrate Halloween, but Mildred's Umbrella Theater Company certainly does, wrapped in blood red and oozing under the door.
Feathers and Teeth (2015) is a doozy, a trick-or-treat treat that's tasty, bleakly ironic and boisterously disturbing. It's candy corn laced with shards of glass. Eat at your own peril.
What begins as a cartoon ends in roiling toxic clouds from Twilight Zone, Dexter and bilious shades of Son of Sam. This is modern “Grand Guignol” with comic vengeance and wily perception.
Derived from the unquenchable Elizabethan taste for blood lust, the French Grand Guignol satisfied the late 19th century's penchant for horror, revenge and realistic stage effects. By every contemporary account, the blatant sadism left patrons faint or aroused, usually both. Strangulation, rape, mental illness, blinding with scissors, slitting of throats, or a chisel into the brain were common occurrences in these gory plays. The stage portrayed a world gone mad, an underworld of depravity and debauchery, with a hyper-realistic style that existed well into the 20th century. Living through the horrors of WWI was child's play compared to these twisted psychological attacks that amplified the world's gross inhumanity. Fantastically successful, this original theater of cruelty waned after the very real horrors of WWII became common knowledge.
But there's nothing like a good scare, a muffled bump in the night, an animal's wounded whimper under the floorboards, or a stepmother from Hell. Mildred's Umbrella gives us chills to spare.
What begins as a typical psychological study of teen Chris (Maddie Calais), who's not dealing very well with the recent death of her beloved mother and the surprise romance of Dad (Jeff Miller) with Mom's sexy nurse, Carol (Danielle Kristen Bunch), the play turns quickly into a curdling, wondrous theatrical fantasy of horror and comedy. I will not spoil the savory surprises in the plot's serpentine turns and detours; I leave them for you to discover, but, believe me, it's a delightfully surreal roller-coaster ride. Buckle up.
While there are moments when you wish director Jacey Little would turn down the artifice – the first scene is mauled by sledgehammer timing and forced sitcom style – the play's strength soon overcomes any apprehension. This quirky drama soon finds its dark true voice, and it's off and singing.
Where else would you find a stew pot filled with cannibalistic creatures who may be, or may be not, avatars of Chris's subconscious? Where else would you find the nerdiest of nerds in weird Boy Scout Hugo (Wesley Whitson, absolutely phenomenal and eye-catching), who will do anything for Chris's approval? Did pregnant lover Carol kill Chris's mom, or did Dad suffocate his wife because of Carol's Delilah allure? And who unearthed those eerie little critters and brought them into the house anyway?
There are superb animation sequences by Tim Thomson and Todd A. Winter, projected in Chris's reveries, that are so stunning and right you think the play might not recover from such imagination, but it does. These miniature little dramas, augmented by Gregory Starbird's stunning, candle-like lighting, add to the disquiet as Smith's weird story spins off into territory incognito.
This play is a wonderful discovery, a tad bumpy in execution and somewhat amorphous in the finale's staging, but what fun for Halloween.
Miller, a venerated pro from Catastrophic Theatre, brings his oily, Everyman charm to the role of Arthur. In his polyester shirt, gold chain and permed black hair, he's obnoxious yet equally sympathetic, the perfect patsy. You're not sure whether to laugh at his pretension or cry at his innocence. It's the perfect Miller part.
Bunch has the most difficult role. Is she evil alien or obvious sexpot? Director Little doesn't help, allowing Bunch to overplay the beginning scenes as if she's a stereotypical shrew from some '40s Warner Bros. cartoon. Immediately we're suspicious, instead of on her side. We may be manipulated by Smith's cagey plotting, but we've got to root for Carol as much as we root for Chris; it's only fair.
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The physical comedy shtick with Hugo and the garden hose is stupid and obvious, not at all appropriate for what playwright Smith is trying to say, but the moment passes because of Whitson's incredibly full characterization. Mesmerizing and odd beyond comparison, he's the most alive onstage. Hugo – and Whitson – is worthy of his own play.
Like O.J. Simpson's Brentwood crime scene, blood follows us. We have to step over pools as we walk by the stage; splatters cover the bar area; and I swear I saw incriminating droplets outside on the veranda leading to the parking lot.
Smith's little “teufels,” “devils” in German, are on the prowl at Mildred's Umbrella. Holy Halloween, what a show!
Feathers and Teeth continues at 8 p.m. Thursdays, Fridays and Saturdays and 3 p.m. October 29. Through November 4. Studio 101, 1824 Spring Street. For information, call 832-463-0409 or visit mildredsumbrella.com. $15 to $25.