Fifteen-year-old Charlotte (a wildly unfiltered Clarity Welch) is a mess. The poster child of teen angst, this high-schooler is devastated by the death of her beloved, beautiful mother. She's adrift, unmoored and riddled with enough untethered teen spirit to propel an entire series of made-for-TV, after-school specials. Which is just what Mark Schultz's drama, Everything Will Be Different: A Brief History of Helen of Troy, resembles, although a whole lot more gritty and in-your-face. There's no discrete veil of political correctness of the kind you'd find from the Alphabet networks, no skittering around the issues, no playing nice with sex. This R-rated work is definitely written for cable.
Charlotte is haunted by her mother, so engulfed she's nearly unhinged. Not since Natalie Wood went mad with lust in Splendor in the Grass has a teenager been so driven over the edge.
Her best friend, Heather (Christina Marie Kelly, neatly dippy and oh-so-Valley Girl), who advises her on life, men and cosmetics, is her phantom playmate and guru. Her father (Jeff Miller, in one of his patented anxiety-filled common-man portraits) drowns his depression in alcohol and the evening news. Geeky best friend Franklin (Mateo Mpinduzi-Mott, beautifully faceted) won't have sex with her; he's saving himself for marriage – a closeted, lame excuse we don't believe any more than Charlotte does. Guidance counselor Gary (Noel Bowers, comically aghast) tries to talk reason to her about her unreasonable wish to become a porn star. And cock-of-the-walk Freddie (Dayne Lathrop, all ego and testosterone as the high school jock of her dreams) is so horny he consents to a blowjob, but nobody must know. “Do you swallow?” he asks with the randy insouciance of an Adonis, as if to test Charlotte's virtue and/or proficiency.
In Schultz's condemnation of contemporary life and times, Charlotte longs for the unattainable – fame, beauty, wealth – those ineffable crass symbols of disposable modern culture. She wants men to die for her, like mythic Helen of Troy, a subject on whom she gives a class report at the start of each of the play's four parts. (Later, we learn Helen was her mother's name.) If men won't die for her, then she wants them to suffer and pine miserably in their desire. She wants to be in command of her fate. She wants adventure. She wants a life. Mostly, it seems, she just wants sex. She's convinced that's the only thing that will make men love her – or give her a sense of belonging and self-worth.
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We don't know what to believe. Heather is not the only fantasy Charlotte conjures. This girl's got quite a vivid, ferocious imagination. Charlotte doesn't see dead people; she envisions entire scenes. Is Dad really so unfeeling and mean? “You're not very pretty...and that's the gods-honest truth,” he spits at her when she threatens to leave the house, “No one will love you!” As she and Dad struggle, she and the luggage go flying across the room. Boozy and ego-bruised, he hurls ugliness at her, calls her a lodestone and a burden. But is this scene played in her frazzled mind? (And, to be fair, when she's portrayed by Welch's fresh luminosity, we immediately question anyone's assertion that she's no beauty.)
Did Gary take sleazy Polaroids of her in his basement? She makes up a lurid sex fantasy, attempting to blackmail him. Hunky Freddie climbs into her bedroom and confesses undying love. We know that never happened. And hapless Franklin? Charlotte uses his sweet virginity against him in vicious revenge, spreading a salacious gay rumor about him and Freddie. Later, he's beaten to a pulp by outraged Freddie. Bleeding, he climbs in her window. Desperate to prove he's not what Charlotte thinks, he lets himself be serviced. No one is purified in her world. If this is war, she's a feral gorgon, out for revenge and acceptance anywhere she can find it.
Disgust, humiliation, abasement – they're all weapons in her arsenal. We might understand her psychic fragility, but not such wanton psychosis. Schultz wants us to forgive her, but we can't, not after her horrid treatment of hapless Franklin. She's heartless. When she sees the light, banishing Heather and making a tepid truce with Dad, there's a glimmer of hope for this wayward little girl, but it comes at a price: We don't believe it. Charlotte's no Helen of Troy, she's Hermione, Helen's daughter, waiting, forever waiting, for Mom to return home to Sparta.
By the time of this revelation, the play's been running two hours. Much too long to depict teen dispiritedness, it becomes repetitive as it plods toward conclusion. Director Kyle Sturdivant conducts with dirge tempo, holding too long on little moments as if they're the key to explaining Charlotte's inner demons. It becomes ponderous. Must Miller have two scenes where he pounds his head in impotent frustration?
Charlotte's confining world is amply conjured by designer Kevin Holden. Wall panels are broken; Dad's den is a La-Z-Boy and side table to hold his ubiquitous scotch; Charlotte's bedroom is a rumpled day bed outlined in cheery string lights, with a cluttered vanity and fan mag pix (mostly models) taped to the wall – a low-rent princess bower. When Charlotte gives her school reports on Helen of Troy, Tim Thompson's video projections mirror her stream of consciousness: gushing clouds pierced by sun for the mythic opener, red mists for the brutal fall of Troy, inky sky full of fading stars for Hermione's plea.
Welch, a lively presence, is onstage throughout and goes through myriad transformations: whiny harpy, needy teen, prophetic Cassandra, shrill temptress, little girl lost – sometimes all at once. In this tour-de-force performance, she's a complicated, muddled vixen, unaware of what she's doing and the devastating effects her actions have on others, and then, quite aware and dangerously out of control. But it's Schultz who prevents us from feeling much sympathy. Everything's so nebulous and on an equal plane. Is Charlotte mad, misunderstood or maligned innocent? Is this a cry from a shattered heart, or the stirrings of a Medea in the making? The journey's quirky, but with redemption within reach, maybe, just maybe, everything will be different. That's when the play aches to begin.
Everything Will Be Different is the distaff bookend to Catastrophic's season at the old DiverseWorks space, which opened last February with another Schultz teen-angst work, The Blackest Shore. (The company moves to MATCH in January, 2016.) One of Schultz's mystery plays would have been enough.
Everything Will Be Different: A Brief History of Helen of Troy. Through December 5. Catastrophic Theatre, North Main at Naylor. For information, call 713-522-2723 or visit catastrophictheatre.com. Pay-what-you-will.