TEETH: When Men Attack, Her Body Bites Back

A Pop/Horror Musical at Playwrights Horizons

By: - Apr 05, 2024

If you’ve been waiting for an off- Broadway musical about ‘vagina dentata’, wait no longer! Here it is: Teeth, an entertaining, comedic, feminist’s fantasy that dives headfirst into taboo territory.

 Drawing inspiration from the 2007 cult-horror film by Mitchell Lichtenstein, this energetic show satirizes purity culture and sexual desire while tossing in a bit of biting commentary on misogyny.

Warning: this farce is not Sunday school.

 The brazen plot centers around Dawn O’Keefe ( I saw it with the excellent understudy, Helen J Shen). Dawn is a Bible-thumping, evangelical Christian, teen with a surprise: she has “vagina dentata”, meaning she has teeth down there. (It’s a Latin term echoing a Greek myth rooted in the idea that women have lethal chompers.

WITH AN APPETITE FOR PENIS                                                      

As our  toothy damsel-in-distress navigates the murky waters of sexual repression, shame, and desire, her dental dilemma becomes the centerpiece of a Lorena Bobbitt-like musical horror show guaranteed to either delight—or repulse--you.

The show’s lyricist is Michael R. Jackson, winner of both a Pulitzer Prize and a Tony Award for  “A Strange Loop.” Anna K. Jacobs wrote the pop-rock music, and the two of them co-wrote the book.

The director is the very talented Sarah Benson, and the choreographer is Raja Feather Kelly. The whole production-- the sets and costumes, the lighting, the special effects and the cast-- is  excellent, and in spite of the crazy plot the play is great fun.

The curtain rises on the New Testament Village Church, located somewhere in Middle America and populated by “Promise Keeper Girls” and “Truthseekers,” members of a male support group.

 Here we  meet Dawn, the evil Pastor (Steven Pasquale), who is also her fanatical step-father, and her randy step-brother, Brad,( Will Connolly), who is haunted by an incident from his and Dawn’s childhood: he touched her down there and lost a finger-tip.

The “Promise Keeper Girls” have committed themselves to the “awesome message of female empowerment through sexual purity,” which, as they sing, is a “precious, precious gift.”

While all of them have vowed to maintain their virginity until they hear wedding bells, Dawn’s hormone’s are raging, which makes her piety pledge hard to keep. Her sexual desires frighten her, the “heat of temptation” is all around her.

While she struggles to keep her virginity intact, she is strongly attracted to her boyfriend, handsome basketball star, Tobey, ( Jason Gotay), that is, until he forces himself on her. And like a Pac-man (or Pac-woman) devouring a power pellet, the teeth in her vagina bite off his penis…..and he dies: Victim Number One.

And the show is off and running.

The first few times castration happens Dawn blames herself: “JUST LIKE EVE MY BODY’S BEEN CURSED AND I DON’T KNOW IF IT CAN BE REVERSED.”

But it doesn’t take long for her to turn from a sweet, innocent “Promise Keeper” into a homicidal temptress.

The show is intended as a dark comedy, and yes, there are truly a lot of laughs. But not everything is laughable, especially when a group of men rail against the “feminocracy” and vow to kill off the protagonist. This theme might have been better fleshed out. Here it merely nods to the current manosphere culture, which  exists mostly online, where  radical men’s groups promote anti-feminism while advocating masculinity and misogyny.

In the Author’s Note the creators tell us that the ideologies within the play are “just as much a part of the horrors as the violence.” Though there may be ideas about the current culture wars of male dominance and female castration,  and certainly there are many wonderful character moments, the show’s primary idea, as far as I’m concerned, is to shock the audience out of their wits. Has any theater work ever contained any more upsetting images than bloody penises strewn across a stage, even if they are cartoonish?

For all the moral high roads Jackson and Jacobs profess, in my opinion Teeth is simply an exploitation of wacked-out religious concepts, punctuated by many highly amusing moments.

That it succeeds is a testament to Jackson’s unhinged lyrics and a terrific cast.

TEETH at Playwrights Horizon through April 28, 2024

Photo credits: Chelcie Parry