The set up:
In a theater season stuffed with so many tried and true productions or imports boasting newness via their supposed regional premiere status, it's truly refreshing to see a work on stage performed for the very first time. It's even more intriguing when that work comes to us from a hitherto unknown and up and coming playwright. Catastrophic Theatre is bringing the work of New York based 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 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), who Stuart can't stand, into their home to live with them.
Cue the angst.
Schultz's play starts off moody enough with projections of black and white tumultuous ocean tides on four parallelogram-shaped video screens covering the back wall of the stage. A disembodied voice reads an emo poem about blackness and shorelines, evoking feelings of dread or at least depression.
But just when we think we are in for an hour and 15 minutes of despair, Schultz switches the mood and gives us comedy. We meet Stuart (an energetically natural Gabriel Regojo) as he pitches his slasher/hero movie to the AV club in monologue. With the excitement over movie violence that only a hormonally hopped up teen can muster, Stuart 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 see saw 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 because he molested him at a young age. We assume this is why Stuart's mom Mel (Elizabeth Marshall Black) is a pill popping, aggressively skittish woman who seems more concerned with ragging on Stuart about his unidentified "illness" and asking if he's still in therapy than she is about her own substance abuse or the fact that her son and her boyfriend don't get along.
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 that 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 that no one seems to really care about. Certainly not his mom who Schultz makes thoroughly unlikeable and in her own way as abusive as the father. Not Trisha (Candice D'Meza) his new agey therapist who is more concerned with getting the smart-assed Stuart to properly pick his inner animal than really addressing what's going on with him. Certainly not his father Dallas (John Gremillion) who may go down as the one of the most shallowly written and narratively awkward pedophiles on stage.
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 as he reunites with Stuart to tell him how sorry is and to be understood as a once sick but now better man. Then in a dichotomous and unseemly fashion, Schultz gives us a drunken and comedic Dallas squaring off humorously with his ex-wife's boyfriend. The confusing part is that this isn't one of those dark humor, laugh because we are disturbed kind of plot moves. It's just plain comedy, but to what end? We don't know and as a result the character and his effect of Stuart seem throwaway at best and even perhaps insulting at worst.
Where The Blackest Shore really does excite however is the complex relationship between Stuart and his new gay friend George (the superlative Zachary Leonard), a neatly pressed, jittery, bullied and sweet as all get up school mate. It's here that Schultz's writing shows tender insight into the emotional ravages eating away at Stuart. The friendship may start with Stuart threatening to hurt poor George if he doesn't participate in his movie, but soon the boys become actual friends or perhaps more than friends. Stuart may not be able to articulate what his "illness" is to George 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.
Director Jason Noodler 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. Despondent scenes give way to comedy and back again. Mercifully in the final scene Schultz does give us some insight into just what is behind Stuart's unusual stance where his father is concerned, but Noodler rushes the moment and then flits off to once again bombard us with wave crashing poem reading.
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At least he waves look nice. Tim Thompson's video designs are thankfully not too enamoured of themselves that they need to steal the show. Whether they depict oversized alarm clocks in bedroom scenes, piecemeal lockers at school or a live café scene when Stuart and his father first reunite, the effect is surreally inviting and greatly adds to the minimalist set design. The verdict:
As always, a new play brings risk and risk can mean potential for failings. 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.
There is far more to enjoy in Regojo and Leonard's performances than in this play as a whole and while great acting is always a thrilling thing to watch, here it seems like consolation for a play that could have captured us on many more levels. Here's hoping that like any hatchling, The Blackest Shore gets the opportunity to learn and develop and figure out what it wants to be when it grows up.
The Blackest Shore continues through March 7 at Catastrophic Theatre, 1119 East Freeway. Purchase tickets online at catastrophictheatre.com or call 713-522-2723. Pay-what-you-can