The emotional violence running rampant through "Everything Will Be Different" is enough to make "Who's Afraid of Virginia Woolf?" look like "Peg o' My Heart."
The Catastrophic Theatre is presenting the Houston premiere of Mark Schultz's tough-minded play depicting a disturbed 16-year-old girl's emotional travails in the aftermath of her mother's death. To the company's credit, everything about the rendition is as bold and hard-hitting as Schultz's script - especially Kyle Sturdivant's aptly severe direction and Clarity Welch's alarmingly real performance in the demanding lead role.
Charlotte is one of the scariest teens you will ever encounter on stage, screen or in life - demanding, threatening, at times dangerously unhinged. She's also pitiable, poignant and, sadly, for all her destructive qualities, all too recognizably human.
Charlotte's dead mother, we're repeatedly told, was very beautiful, while Charlotte is - or at least, is convinced she is - very unbeautiful. She becomes obsessed with notions of beauty and desirability, as represented by Helen of Troy, and even identifies the historical figure with her mother. Hence the play's ironic subtitle "A Brief History of Helen of Troy." At a few points, we hear excerpts from Charlotte's class report on Helen: "Everyone loved her. Everyone wanted to have her. And they would have done anything for her - even die." Charlotte attaches magical properties to that sort of desirability.
'Everything Will Be Different: A Brief History of Helen of Troy'
When: 8 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, through Dec. 5
Where: Catastrophic Theatre, 1119 I-10 E.
Tickets: Pay-what-you-can admission; 713-522-2723, catastrophictheatre.com
Charlotte's father, virtually catatonic with grief, drinks heavily and can usually be found sacked out in front of the TV, repeatedly and meaninglessly announcing: "The news is on." In their pain and frustration, Charlotte and her father lash out at each other verbally, and sometimes, physically. One of the kinder exchanges has father telling daughter: "No one will ever love you."
Planning to leave home, Charlotte asks her guidance counselor to help her achieve her ambition of becoming a porn star. Later she accuses him of having taken nude photos of her - and threatens to expose him as a child molester.
Charlotte half-heartedly befriends Franklin, another teen who's something of an outcast, though she really wants to meet his cousin, Freddie, the star jock desired by all. Charlotte degrades herself, offering sexual favors to the conceited Freddie, in a desperate bid for a few crumbs of attention. The heroine's misguided alliances with both Franklin and Freddie end painfully.
Her only true friend seems to be Heather, a stereotypical teenage girl who shares gossip, assures Charlotte she's beautiful and offers tips on dating and such. Unfortunately, we gradually realize that this friendship is a figment of Charlotte's imagination. Indeed, as it becomes clear that Charlotte is living more and more in fantasy, it becomes increasingly difficult to determine which incidents are real and which are imagined - another aspect that makes this play so intriguing and troubling.
In showing how distressingly nasty human beings can be to each other, Schultz is exploring terrain that has become a specialty in recent years with such playwrights as Neil LaBute. Yet "Everything Will Be Different" brings its own voice and style to the theme. The play's blend of surreal and hyper-real elements achieves both human insight and dramatic punch. And there's even a glimmer of hope at the close, with a tentative rapprochement between father and daughter.
Sturdivant's direction puts the scenes across with stark intensity. The cries of emotional pain are as convincingly realized as the several shocking outbursts of physical violence.
Welch is consistently excellent in what must be an extremely difficult role to play. She brings raw emotional power and unflinching honesty to Charlotte. More than anything else, her wrenching portrayal is the heart of the production's success.
Jeff Miller is likewise painfully true as the father - as pitiful in his emotional trauma as he is deplorable in his cruelty to his child. You won't forget the moment when, in a fit of frustration, he slams the TV remote against his forehead repeatedly. (Give that actor a bottle of aspirin - he's earned it.)
Christina Marie Kelly's Heather lends a note of welcome humor with her ever-so-slightly sardonic enactment of a quintessentially chatty teen girl, and Mateo Mpinduzi Mott makes a natural and sympathetic Franklin.
Noel Bowers is convincingly beleaguered as Charlotte's counselor - properly flabbergasted when she starts hurling wild accusations.
Dayne Lathrop demonstrates natural stage presence and sound acting skills as Freddie, neatly differentiating between a fantasized scene as the dream date of Charlotte's imagination and the "real" Freddie of ruthlessly unshakable ego.
"Everything Will Be Different" is often difficult to watch - yet exerts the same riveting allure as a detailed account of some horrible accident or natural disaster.
With the holiday season right around the corner, just about every company in town will be offering something safe, cozy and familiar. For theatergoers craving more adventurous fare, this exploration of life's thornier aspects is your Christmas present, wrapped in ribbons of pain and topped with a big bright bow of emotional devastation.