Capsule Stage Reviews: February 19, 2015

The Blackest Shore Catastrophic Theatre brings the work of New York-based up-and-coming playwright Mark Schulz to us twice this season. Closing out the year is Schultz's play Everything Will Be Different: A Brief History of Helen of Troy, a show about teen girl anguish. On offer now is the premiere of The Blackest Shore, a play ostensibly about male teenage trauma and coping. The teen in this case is Stuart, and he's making a violent movie that's part zombie thriller, part gothic vampire tale and part Lord of the Rings with a healthy dash of porn thrown in for good measure. Stuart's dad has done something horrible and therefore isn't around, and his mom is about to invite her boyfriend (Josh Morrison), whom Stuart can't stand, into their home to live with them. Schultz's play starts off moody enough with projections of tumultuous black and white ocean tides on four parallelogram-shaped video screens covering the back wall of the stage. A disembodied voice reads a poem about blackness and shorelines, evoking feelings of dread or at least depression. But just when we think we're in for an evening of angst, Schultz switches the mood and gives us comedy. Stuart (an energetically natural Gabriel Regojo) pitches his slasher/hero movie to the AV club with the excitement over movie violence that only a hormonally hopped-up teen can muster. He riffs off all the gore he plans on depicting while making sure to add that it's also a love story in the realm of a porno. It's a clever chuckle that sets up this seesaw script that has a hard time deciding what it wants to be and what it's trying to say. On the one hand, we learn fairly early that the reason Stuart's dad isn't around is that he molested him at a young age. On the other hand, Stuart doesn't seem all that bothered by his history with his dad and instead desperately wants to go live with him. It's the premise of the transparently metaphoric movie he's trying to make. A dark overlord is lonely and comes to rescue his son from those who don't realize how special he is. Obviously, Stuart has some issues. The hulking Regojo does a nifty job playing him as an in-your-face, smart-mouthed, funny kid. One whom no one seems to really care about. Certainly not his mom (Elizabeth Marshall Black), whom Schultz makes unnecessarily unlikable and in her own way as abusive as the father. Not Trisha (Candice D'Meza), his New Agey therapist who comically asks him to find his "inner animal." Certainly not his father, Dallas (John Gremillion), who may go down as one of the most shallowly written and narratively awkward pedophiles onstage. Like the scenic tone seesaw at the start of the play, Schultz plays flip-flop with Dallas, making him a meek and weirdly sympathetic child abuser one moment and then a drunken and comedic character in another. We aren't laughing in a dark-humor kind of fashion; the comedy is just for straight laughs, but for what purpose? We don't know, and as a result, the character and his effect on Stuart seem throwaway at best and even perhaps insulting at worst. Where The Blackest Shore really does excite, however, is in the complex relationship between Stuart and his new gay wallflower friend, George (the superlative Zachary Leonard). It's here that Schultz's writing shows tender insight into the emotional ravages eating away at Stuart. Stuart may not be able to articulate to George what ails him or what caused it, but in the way teenage boys say a lot by what they don't say, we finally get a window into Stuart's damaged places and how that damage begets more sorrow. Director Jason Nodler runs the show with clear stage management that at times manages to shrug off what just isn't on the page, but too often he falls victim to the script's schizophrenia. A rushed final insightful scene saps what little meaning we may glean from the script. Tim Thompson's video designs are thankfully not so enamoured of themselves that they need to steal the show. Whether they depict oversize alarm clocks in bedroom scenes, piecemeal lockers at school or a live cafe scene when Stuart and his father first reunite, the effect is surreally inviting and greatly adds to the minimalist set design. Schultz certainly has something to say about how abuse affects a young man's life. He even has a different and disturbing take on how a victim reacts to that abuse. But exactly what he wants us to take away from his work gets terribly muddied by a play that doesn't know which stylistic direction it wants to go or how the supporting characters serve the message. There's nothing wrong with injecting comedy into a tragic story or asking us to consider repugnant characters, but Schultz does so without context or irony, causing the tropes to topple in on themselves despite the engaging performances by his two teen male characters. Through March 7. Catastrophic Theatre, 1119 East Freeway, — JG

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D.L. Groover has contributed to countless reputable publications including the Houston Press since 2003. His theater criticism has earned him a national award from the Association of Alternative Newsmedia (AAN) as well as three statewide Lone Star Press Awards for the same. He's co-author of the irreverent appreciation, Skeletons from the Opera Closet (St. Martin's Press), now in its fourth printing.
Contact: D. L. Groover
Jessica Goldman was the theater critic for CBC Radio in Calgary prior to joining the Houston Press team. Her work has also appeared in American Theatre Magazine, Globe and Mail and Alberta Views. Jessica is a member of the American Theatre Critics Association.
Contact: Jessica Goldman