Same Teeth, Different Bite

Issue Seven: Teeth
Sophie Siegel-Warren
March 28, 2024
Sophie Siegel-Warren

Sophie Siegel-Warren is a New York based dramaturg currently pursuing a DFA from David Geffen School of Drama at Yale for her dissertation in French translation. She received her BA from Carleton College in Northfield, Minnesota, where she studied English with a focus in dramatic literature and documentary performance and her MFA from the School of Drama at Yale in Dramaturgy and Dramatic Criticism with a certificate in Theater Management. As a freelance dramaturg, Sophie has worked on a wide range of projects in both theater and film/TV, and has dramaturged for institutions including Yale Repertory Theatre, Westport Country Playhouse, Ma-Yi Theater Company, Two River Theater, The Guthrie Theater, and Full Circle Theater Company. Sophie is a passionate arts educator who has worked with education initiatives at FirstWorks Providence, the Town Hall Foundation, Yale Repertory Theatre, David Geffen School of Drama at Yale, and the Dwight/Edgewood Project. She was most recently a Visiting Assistant Professor in the Drama, Theater, and Dance department at Queens College, CUNY.

Anna K. Jacobs and Michael R. Jackson’s new musical Teeth, now at Playwrights Horizons, is an adaptation of the 2007 cult classic film of the same name (written, produced, and directed by Mitchell Lichtenstein). Both tell the story of Dawn O’Keefe (Alyse Alan Louis at Playwrights), who has taken a purity vow along with her fellow youth group members, cheekily named Promise Keeper Girls (PKGs) in the adaptation.

Jenna Rose Husli, Wren Rivera, Alyse Alan Louis, Phoenix Best, and Helen J Shen in Teeth. Photo Credit: Chelcie Parry

A committed virgin, Dawn has no idea that hiding within her body lies a terrible secret, one only her stepbrother Brad (Will Connolly) knows. When Dawn and another youth group member, Tobey (Jason Gotay), fall in love and begin to cross sexual boundaries, Tobey goes too far and quickly learns what happens when an unwelcome object tries to enter Dawn without her consent. Dawn proceeds to castrate (or, in one case, amputate) a series of unwelcome visitors until a new Dawn breaks forth, unafraid to wield the power between her legs when the need arises.

Although the overall plot from the 2007 film remains largely the same in this 2024 stage musical, Jacobs and Jackson are more interested than their cinematic predecessor in the systems that produce and enable this range of violence. While Lichtenstein presents Dawn’s pledge of abstinence as an individual one, Jacobs and Jackson smartly widen the lens, introducing a powerful world of Christian purity led by Dawn’s abusive stepfather known only as Pastor (Steven Pasquale). They choose to start Teeth grounded in this world; Pastor’s words are the musical’s first, as he delivers a heated sermon to an empty chair belonging to former PKG Amy Sue (recently kicked out for getting pregnant). Introducing what becomes a saliant metaphor for Dawn’s own journey—how Eve’s temptation in the Book of Genesis brings about the fall of man—Pastor reminds his obedient band of PKGs of the only stopgap for such a fall: shame.  “Woman!” Pastor cries to the chair, to the assembled PKGS, and, we learn, to a hugely popular livestream, “Where is your fig leaf? Woman! Where is your shame?”

Steven Pasquale and the ensemble of Teeth. Photo Credit: Chelcie Parry

Right away, this Teeth foregrounds the overt terror its characters feel towards their own desires and speaks explicitly about the power of shame. The very form of a musical makes hidden interiority nearly impossible, and rather than limiting their adaptation in favor of the film’s more one-dimensional characterization, Jacobs and Jackson lean delightfully into the challenge of mental and emotional transparency. Granting full access to their characters’ internal landscapes as they encounter desire, shame, and terror, psychic disruption becomes as central to Dawn’s arc as her physical one. Where Lichtenstein’s Dawn merely cries out, “What’s wrong with me?” after first touching herself, Jackson and Jacobs’ Dawn gets a full musical number to articulate her fear of losing control and her reliance on shame to reinstate it. As with the rest of Teeth’s numbers, Jackson’s lyrics in “Shame in My Body” find a sweet spot in the collision between innocuous, poppy, teenage melody, and explicit, specific, and often painfully honest words that together illustrate the specifics of Dawn’s sexual awakening and the depths of her self-loathing.  Teeth’s characters are achingly self-aware regarding both their curiosity and their abject fear. These aren’t ignorant teenagers, at worst brainwashed and at best undereducated, but rather students—scholars, even—of Biblical text who can quote and cite their sources with ease. Even as the story of Eve is a warning for the dangers of an endlessly curious mind, the PKGs have an enormous hunger for knowledge and understanding; it’s not ignorance that has led them to Pastor, but an acute awareness of how unstable their world is and a keen desire for protection from Father God.

Brad, however, has no interest in Father God’s protection. Jacobs and Jackson’s Brad is an inheritor of toxic masculinity, coming from a lineage of men who claim that, in Pastor’s own words, “being a man is about pain.” Blaming Dawn—and by extent, all women—for his misery, Brad turns to a virtual space where he finds like-minded men who hope to rid themselves of this pain, caused, as they see it, by the female race. Joining their Truthseeker movement, Brad begins to follow the teachings of a men’s life coach called Godfather (a fun inversion of the PKG’s Father God), who inspires the men to take arms against the “feminocracy.”

Will Connolly, Steven Pasquale, and Jared Loftin in Teeth. Photo Credit: Chelcie Parry

The musical is infused with collectives, made manifest in the tight-knit club of PKGs, the conspiratorial Truthseekers, and the very concept of the “feminocracy.” The distinct lack of isolation within the musical is critical to its dramaturgy—it’s not that Dawn is alone, as she is in the film, but that she is surrounded, very much part of a system in which she holds responsibility. In a particularly stirring number, “Always the Woman,” director Sarah Benson positions the PKGs around Dawn—on the top of the walls, on the far downstage wings—and together, they name how women, their bodies, their sexuality, are the genesis of all suffering. If only Dawn could control, control, control, she’d be pure. Like a caged animal, we watch a panicked Dawn try to find a way out, turning to man after man who has promised her protection only to be betrayed over and over again. She is subjected to a whole range of betrayal, from the romantic, to the sexual, to the medical, to the familial, together illustrating the many-headed monster of misogyny. The relentlessness of this cruelty overwhelms Dawn; around every corner is another man positioned to take advantage of her for their own pleasure or self-promotion. While Dawn in the film is also repeatedly made victim, the audience can read the signs from a mile away. Jacobs and Jackson, on the other hand, often lull us into a false sense of security, enabling us to share in Dawn’s horror when each refuge becomes another den of snakes.

Much of Jacobs and Jackson’s intervention comes in their framing of Dentata, the source of Dawn’s vaginal teeth. In this adaptation, Dentata is a goddess, leader of the feminocracy, a divine spirit who ‘the wiki’ describes as “feminine protection from a masculine attack.” She is the figurehead of a collective, a representation not of one woman or one monster, but an army. In the film, Dentata is a creature whose sole purpose is her eventual defeat by a courageous man. “The myth imagines sexual intercourse as an epic journey that every man must make back to the womb,” explains film-Dawn’s voiceover. Lichtenstein isn’t making heroes of the men in his film, but he is centering them. The end of his Teeth presents a Dawn poised to personally teach every lecherous man a lesson, one seduction at a time.

The film frames this as some kind of victory – but I find it deeply sad. In Lichtenstein’s film, Dentata is a solitary figure who condemns Dawn to a particularly lonely – and vengeful – life. By contrast, the musical ends with an epic battle, a fiery showdown between the Truthseekers and the Dentatas. The battle isn’t one of seduction, but hand-to-hand combat, where the swords wielded by the Dentatas just happen to be between their legs.

Alyse Alan Louis and Jason Gotay in Teeth. Photo Credit: Chelcie Parry

Jacobs and Jackson craft a moving, darkly funny condemnation of the human impulse to cling to mythologies that protect us. In some ways, Teeth leaves open a critical question: protect us from what? Each other, it seems. We let these mythologies become central to our identities, and they become the banners under which we freely commit atrocities.

But it’s in the play’s final moments that Jacobs and Jackson lose me. The strengths of this adaptation are in the musical’s nuanced and clever examination of the systems and cycles that produce monsters. Still, their conclusion ends up unhelpfully drawing equivalencies between these systems, with little regard for power and history. By likening one power grab to another, they lose the way these three mythologies—the Dentata, the Promise Keepers, and the Truthseekers—are not interchangeable. Reflexive, yes. Responding to one another, absolutely. But the same?  I’m not so sure.      

I am moved by an ending that asks how we achieve collective liberation without violence, and whether or not that’s possible. I believe it is, and appreciate how Jacobs and Jackson trouble the revenge tragedy framework. But, by overplaying its ending, the musical’s book barrels through the subtle anxiety and creeping doubt that makes revenge narratives so uncomfortable. Rather than letting me sit in this discomfort and come to my own conclusion about the world to come, Teeth prescribes an inevitable cycle of interchangeable violence. As if by accident, the lesson seems to be: if you let the women have their power, they’ll burn the world to the ground.

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