REVIEW: A Brief History of Helen of Troy (Steep Theatre)

Desperate Beauty for Desperate Times

 

 Scene from Brief History of Helen of Troy by Mark Schultz at Steep Theatre Chicago

   
Steep Theatre presents
   
A Brief History of Helen of Troy
   
Written by Mark Schultz
Directed by Joanie Schultz
at Steep Theatre, 1115 W. Berwyn (map)
through October 30  |  tickets: $22   |  more info

Reviewed by Paige Listerud

Few publications are as fantastically cruel as the beauty magazine. Its digitally manipulated glossy images sell women an impossible dream of eternal youth, svelte luxury and painless desirability. They sell women the dream of womanhood soaked with sexual power and full of the unshakeable confidence that, supposedly, goes with that power. Of course, they also sell the products that promise easy access to that power. They sell, to women searching to escape life’s boredom, banal ugliness and suffering. Millions of Madame Bovary’s flip through their slick pages every month, devouring the ephemeral world within them–a lush and perfect beauty world that their own lives will never realize.

Scene from Brief History of Helen of Troy by Mark Schultz at Steep Theatre Chicago Heaven help the girl who buys into these magazines’ degenerative gospel. Mark Schultz’s award-winning play, A Brief History of Helen of Troy, tries to capture the pitiful madness of Charlotte (Caroline Neff), a girl who has truly drunk the Kool-Aid. Since Charlotte’s mom has died recently and her dad, Harry (Peter Moore), sits night after night staring at the tube in a near-catatonic state, Charlotte grabs hold of beauty mania and wanders far, far off the reservation. She pursues the career option of becoming a porn star with her high school guidance counselor, Gary (Michael Salinas), and pathetically offers blow-jobs to confidently callous jerks like Freddie (Nick Horst)—all in her desperate drive for attention, appreciation and a more glorious future than her current present as the real nowhere girl.

“You can’t keep needing so much,” says Harry to Charlotte over breakfast, trying to stifle his own needs in the wake of grief. Yet truer words could not be spoken about his daughter. Charlotte is one aching black hole of female neediness. The trouble is, without mom or, effectively, dad to guide her through raging adolescence, all she has to turn to is a teen culture in which stardom matters more than substance and image determines one’s future.

Steep Theatre’s production struggles to make Charlotte’s growing madness consistently real. Under the direction of Joanie Schultz, the production achieves its ends only by fits and starts. Mark Schultz’s language is gorgeous and often hits Charlotte’s mania right on the head. “Tragedy is so beautiful,” she says to Franklin (Brandon J. Thompson), the boy she really wants. “Your life could be so tragic if you let it.” As for professing porn star aspirations to Gary, “I was made for more. Some of us were made for more. I know it.” If Chekhov’s three sisters are constantly yearning for Moscow, then Charlotte longs, not just to be prettier, but to be legendary in her beauty—just like mom.

But the play is worth seeing for its language and themes. Unevenness from scene to scene does not mean that all is lost. Scenes between Charlotte and her gal pal Heather (Katy Boza) crackle with the exchange between darkness and levity that Neff and Boza’s coyly balanced Scene from Brief History of Helen of Troy at Steep Theatre Chicago 2performances deliver. The scenes between Charlotte and her guidance counselor tip one into queasy vertigo, given Salinas’ gift to go from stiff propriety to sleazy charm without a hitch. Nick Horst, as Freddie, does arrogant asshole right–the unmistakable stench of privilege rises from his boast, “Everyone goes down on me and everyone swallows. Big deal.”

Strange that the scenes that falter most are those where Charlotte faces men who could really give a damn about her. Neff’s interactions with Thompson and Moore lose their bearings. That may sound really absurd, since Schultz pushes these characters into over-the-top, melodramatic surrealism. Charlotte reaches her heights in her crazy longing with Franklin and Harry. Nevertheless, something realistic must be fashioned out of the all-out collision between Charlotte’s fantasies and cold reality in these scenes, or the audience just can’t and won’t buy it. When Charlotte and Harry, or Charlotte and Franklin, go over the top, the audience has to be willing to go with them. Without a connection to these scenes that produce solid empathy, Charlotte just becomes another statistic in the cultural war on real girls.

   
   
Rating: ★★½
  
  

 Steep Theatre - Helen of Troy poster

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