By Kendra Jones

“Hands up for Father God.”

That deep red carpeting. The kind that’s soft enough to sit on for hours, but firm enough that vacuum lines stay imprinted from one Sunday to the next. A giant illuminated cross hangs on the wood-paneled wall, center stage. We’re watching a congregation of teens at New Testament Village, led by a militant Pastor (Steven Pasquale) with a God complex, addressing the elephant in the room: an empty chair where Amy Sue once sat. Ryan (Jared Loftin), one of the three guys in this group, is in charge of the live stream, tracking the viewership of thousands.

Teeth, written by Michael R. Jackson and Anna K. Jacobs will drop us into roughly 90 minutes of a culture we both want to escape and keep observing.

Dawn (Alyse Alan Louis), leader of the Promise Keepers Girls (PKG) and Pastor’s step daughter, is an exemplary Christian girl; she’s perfect in basketball standout and seemingly ideal Christian boy Tobey’s (Jason Gotay) eyes. Both Dawn and Tobey, along with the rest of the Promise Keepers (their red purity rings rock their ring fingers), are repressed and wallowing in shame. Embarrassment and regret is shared with PKG and Pastor. Fear of this shame builds as Amy Sue, a seemingly extricated teen, is labeled by that empty chair; she no longer deserves a place in this house of God.

As daughters of God, they sing of their precious gift. “We would pluck out our eyes before we would surrender our precious, precious gift!”

While the young women outnumber the number of males in the group, both express the same trauma, shame, and repression. But—from the very beginning (of the show and the Bible) the woman is to blame. It’s in her DNA. She brings “the fall of man.” She was the one first tempted; she was the one that did what God commanded her not to; SHE is the one that gets herself pregnant out of wedlock. All according to Pastor. Just like Amy Sue, the example of a disgraceful woman in the eyes of men.

Photo by Chelcie Parry

The first hour of Teeth highlights the contradictions and hypocrisy of the church. How the leadership may not always be those to follow in faith. A dark satanic power is rising. The hilarious, sharp, and clever songs narrate the teachings of PKG and show their grapplings with their bodies, selves, and humiliation, and realizations.

Brad (Will Connolly), Pastor’s biological son and a “longtime lurker,” struggles with his own identity and masculinity. He secretly meets with “Truthseekers” in a virtual world. These Truthseeker meetings double as a safe space for men struggling to find themselves and an opportunity for connection–something that Brad does not have at home or in the Church. He seeks the truth of himself, and why his finger hurts. He learns every man has a part of his body that tingles, or hurts. In Brad’s case, it’s his index finger that was bitten.

Photo by Chelcie Parry

I’m reminded how relevant this musical is–how while this young community clad in butterflies and pastels and floral dresses, is darkened with violence and dark comedy. I remember a girl who had grown up in the same nondenominational Christian church as myself. Once she married she realized the fear, pain, and trauma she had developed during her adolescent and teenage years. In the teaching that intimacy before marriage was wrong, she had followed those teachings to a tee and married the exemplary Christian boy, the fear of wrongdoing overpowering their desires and the warnings of elders dousing plans not involving the Church. I remember reading her blog narrating her journey of discovering herself as a woman outside of the church, and the emotional and physical struggles she endured to even begin this grieving and recovery. She had vaginismus: uncontrollable spasms of muscles surrounding the vagina, making it very difficult and painful to enter. I was reminded of the seriousness of Teeth—that both woman and men who have grown up with this purity culture can connect with the shame, self-loathing, trauma, and realizations that the Promise Keepers and Truth Seekers experience.

Toby, who is not the pure boy Dawn loves and believes him to be, admits to her his past relationship; together, they admit their visions to each other, quickly turning into lustful temptations. Tobey and Dawn take the plunge together, a baptismal-turned-sex-scene-turned-death-scene. A dark satanic power emerges. Men are emasculated. A gynecologist sings about his passion for gynecology. Ryan is “born again” as a “man.”

Bloody male appendages are tossed aside. Vagina Dentata, a myth in which a woman’s vagina is said to contain teeth, has been inside of Dawn since her womanly body began formation. It soured her step-sibling relationship with Brad when they were children. This battle between Dentata and men consumes the stage for the last half hour of the show. The women morph into Dentata goddesses, taking revenge on the male race, who have left them believe they have always been lesser than. Bodies are left thrashing in pain, their male members bitten off by vaginal teeth. Women thrash in lacy bodysuits. Bloody hands slide down the walls’ wooded panels. It’s hunting season.

Dawn and Brad accuse each other through song, “You are the origin of my pain” and “I am your monster.” The battle betweem men and dentata. A blame game, where both parties may be equally at fault. Rather than a battle against the church teachings, it’s now a battle between men and women. What the purity culture often seems to result in.

After the show ends, I’m washing my hands at the bathroom sink and a woman rushes in. Squirts of blood cover her arms, her white dress. “I guess I should have realized the risk when I walked in and there was already drops of blood on my armrests.”

But, she joined in viewing, perhaps even finding a similar relatability, and now relishing in the aftermath of female power, of not being the lesser than.

While the dismemberments and violence was intentionally extreme, punishing, and unreasonable, I wished I too had walked away with blood on my arms–the aftermath. I most appreciated the narrative of these pure women emerging, how the Church’s teeth sink into unrealizing individuals and the teeth that bite unrelentlessly as they come to realization of their wounds. This comical, gross, and over the top battle of slashing and gore personifies the mental process and aftermath of freeing oneself from a wrath.

Book and Music by Anna K. Jacobs; Book and Lyrics by Michael R. Jackson; Choreographed by Raja Feather Kelly; Directed by Sarah Benson.

WITH: Courtney Bassett (Promise Keeper Girl Becky), Pheonix Best (Promise Keeper Girl Fiona), Will Connolly (Brad O’Keefe), Jason Gotay (Tobey/Truthseeker), Jenna Rose Husli (Promise Keeper Girl Trisha), Jared Loftin (Ryan/Truthseeker), Alyse Alan Louis (Dawn O’Keefe), Madison McBride (Promise Keeper Girl Keke), Steven Pasquale (Pastor/Godfather/Truthseeker/Dr. Godfrey), Lexi Rhoades (Promise Keeper Girl Rachael), Wren Rivera (Promise Seeker Girl Stephanie).

CREATIVE TEAM: Adam Rigg (Scenic Design), Enver Chakartash (Costume Design), Jane Cox & Stacey Derosier (Lighting Design), Palmer Hefferan (Sound Design), Jeremy Chernick (SFX Design), Kris Kukul (Orchestrations), Julie McBride (Music Supervisor), Patrick Sulken (Music Director), Kristy Norter (Music Contractor), Anna K. Jacobs (Vocal Arrangement), Robert Pickens & Katie Gell (Hair, Wig & Makeup Design), Crista Marie Jackson (Intimacy Director), Robert Westley (Fight Director), Matt Carlin (Props), Amanda Spooner (Production Stage Manager), Thomas Dieter (Stage Manager), Natasha Sinha (Associate Artistic Director).

Based on the screenplay TEETH by Mitchell Lichtenstein.

Teeth opened officially on Tuesday, March 19 but has been extended for a second time–until April 28–at the main stage of Playwrights Horizons, 416 W 42nd St, Manhattan. Tickets can be purchased here.