Teeth | Performing Arts Review | Chicago Reader
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TEETH

Queen's Guard Productions

at the Theatre Building

I'm not going to get too serious about this one. God knows Teeth isn't: in Joanne Koch's life-style comedy, a free-lance journalist sets out to eliminate rape by developing a "defensive diaphragm," which will bite back at an attacker.

Angela Boldoni, our heroine, is the journalist. She interviews a woman who scared off an attacker by using a pair of fake teeth ("I clamped those clackers on his thwacker"). Much to the dismay of Dorian, her lawyer boyfriend, Angela abandons her reporter's objectivity to become a woman with a mission. She is going to devise and market a contraption that will punish rapists instantaneously.

Angela asks her inventor brother, Tony, to come up with a mechanical rape deterrent. Tony, who has already developed the "Last Rites Mousetrap," seems ideal for the job. Looking for the right "angle and thrust," Tony comes up with a gizmo they decide to call the "Queen's Guard" (they first considered marketing it as the "Beefeater"). This gadget, by snapping at the offending appendage, will discourage unwanted attention and leave behind only a "brush mark" as incriminating evidence. They hope to make a million.

Dorian, however, is initially afraid this defensive device could be abused--even, he jokes nervously, by Angela, with him as victim. In one of the play's more serious moments, he questions whether an act like date rape deserves this kind of overkill. Angela fires back that if the woman is denied a choice in such matters, whether or not she knows the man who denies her the choice is irrelevant. Dorian decides to help Angela get the patent rights.

While researching her story and developing her revolutionary new product, Angela meets a hostile gynecologist who thinks her problem is female self-hatred. He refers her to Dr. Victor Kellenbacher, a pompous Freudian therapist with a fake Viennese accent who's been bilking and sexually harassing patients for years, and she goes in the interests of her research. The sexist shrink diagnoses Angela as a ball-breaking woman with a bear-trap invention who suffers from penis envy and delusions of equality. (Interestingly, the playwright herself never uses the P-word.)

Despite his misogynistic analyses, Kellenbacher is warm for her form, so Angela decides the shrink will become the first human to try out the Queen's Guard. In a literally repellent scene, she entraps him into testing the device. Then Teeth ends improbably but happily: the original sexual assailant who started Angela's quest is caught--but purely by accident. The Queen's Guard doesn't even figure in this clumsy resolution.

No question that Koch's script is sincere and well intentioned. And Angela's quest for a sexual equalizer--or, as it's put in the play, for "a genital for a genital"--is an original comic premise (setting aside chastity-belt jokes). Carl Menninger's direction is never less than earnest, even in such transparent stereotypes as Russell Freund's salacious Kellenbacher, and for most of its 90 minutes this production is fast-paced enough to distract us.

And we do need distraction. Because, whether we regard the play as romantic comedy or biting satire, Teeth fails miserably. Its one-joke situation wouldn't tax the limits of a Second City skit; here it wears thin in record time. Though it's silly and daffy, sadly Teeth isn't funny, not one nanogram as much as it thinks it is--unless you're into castration titillation. Its wit consists of double entendres like "ace in the hole" and puns like "No, dear, I'm on my 'Guard.'" And structurally the play has no payoff; everything seems either stunningly predictable or clumsily improvised.

But the big flaw here is Angela's lack of believable motivation. You don't need to replay William Mastrosimone's Extremities to know you can't talk about punishing rape without evoking the ugliness of the crime. Yet this toothless Teeth prefers to stay safely commercial. Cathy Schenkelberg plays Angela so offhandedly she comes across as Mary Tyler Moore looking for a filler for the evening news. It's as if Angela woke up one morning to discover that--heavens!--some men don't care whether they're loved as long as they're satisfied, so she gets perky-mad and decides to do something about it.

Even as an attempt to raise audience awareness of the pain of sexual assault--which of course conflicts with the play's comic purpose--Teeth fails. It never, for example, raises the obvious objection to this snap trap--what would prevent the criminal from revenging his wounded feelings on the victim? Or at the moment of snap is the rapist supposed to suddenly realize the evil of his ways? (Hell, I said I wasn't going to get too serious.)

It's a shame. Teeth means so well. If it were done surrealistically, it might even work--with a major rewrite. Or if Angela evinced the kind of pell-mell rage found in Marisha Chamberlain's Scheherazade, the scenes wouldn't seem so tasteless--to use an unpopular critical term. But as it is, Koch wants this antirape comedy to be trendy, tough, and hilarious too, and considering the material, that not only won't wash, it's just a tad obscene.

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