Everything Will Be Different: A Brief History of Helen of Troy is a lot like The Passion of the Christ. It's torture-porn, a slow-motion snuff film that gains momentum by playing on the same febrile masochistic streak that powers all such voluntary journeys into the darker wilds of human entertainment. The formula is this: Take an innocent creature who deserves nothing so much as a hug; torture, debase, and humiliate her until the audience is greedy to see her punished for her wretched powerlessness; and then keep brutalizing all in attendance until even the heartless must silently beg to see her fall down and give up, just so everyone can breathe again.
The product created by this formula is always darkly fascinating, masochism being one of the few constants of human nature. But seldom is it so fascinating as in Everything Will Be Different. On the most basic and superficial level, this is the story of Charlotte (Ceci Fernandez), a Catholic schoolgirl whose life is so consistently unpleasant that she has lost all contact with ordinary modes of social behavior. Bleeding and pathetic as she is, she has been ostracized by everyone around her, including her father. Clueless, luckless, and loveless, she has turned desperate, and her desperation has made her weird. And so her classmates and her father distance themselves even further from the train wreck she has become, and her life becomes more unpleasant still. Watching this girl's tortured flailing is like watching the controlled demolition of a building with people in it.
Whatever message playwright Mark Schultz buried in this script is lost, in the moment of performance, to nauseous pity. But there are signs and portents all over the place. The first scene is a tableau of suburban domesticity gone terribly awry, with young Charlotte and her dad, Harry (Joe Kimble), eating dinner. They are silent, holding themselves so rigidly that you can almost hear the frozen air cracking around them when they are forced to move. Dad tries to be nice. He compliments the soup Charlotte has made. But when Charlotte tries touching his arm, he leaps up from the table, horrified. One wonders immediately if he wants to fuck her — or if he has.
Everything Will Be Different: A Brief History of Helen of Troy
Through August 25. Written by Mark Schultz. Directed by Stuart Meltzer. With Ceci Fernandez, Joe Kimble, Jessica Farr, Alex Fumero, Nick Duckardt, and Matthew Glass. Mad Cat Theatre Company, 3000 Biscayne Blvd, Ste 100, Miami; 305-576-6377, www.madcattheatre.com.
Where is mother? She's dead, and she was famously beautiful. Everyone seems to know it. Charlotte herself is ugly, and everyone is in agreement about this as well. Dad, schoolmates, guidance counselors — they might not have anything else in common, but they all understand that Charlotte is dog-ass ugly. They hate her for it, and they tell her so. And so Charlotte sets about living like James Caviezel walked to Calvary. The world's rejection of Charlotte is absolute. Her father curses her; she is punched; somebody spits in her face. After 40 minutes of this, we are so desperate to see Charlotte get love from somebody that we cheer when she appears to be molested by her guidance counselor. It's a Cinderella moment. Has Charlotte become beautiful through positive thinking and the careful application of rouge? There are indications of this — that her ugliness was a product of her father's grief all along. A boy climbs through her bedroom window and declares his love for her, and it speaks to the same primal and childish impulse that animates every ugly-duckling story ever told. It's a relief.
But only momentarily. We haven't even made it to intermission when we are forced to confront the notion that, no, these comforts are not what they appear to be. Moment by moment, every small and trivial thing that has rescued Charlotte's life from total and ceaseless misery is ripped away, and it doesn't stop happening. Moment by moment, the audience tells itself the situation couldn't get any worse. And then it gets worse.
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What's remarkable here isn't the torture summoned up by the mind of Schultz — most boys have played Inquisitor at one time or another, dreaming up ever-worse hypothetical torments for their own titillated self-mortification — but the way it is expressed in the absolutism of the writing, and in Stuart Meltzer's uncompromising directing. He seems to have a particularly keen insight into the minds of those unfortunate children in every high school class who find themselves the butt of every joke, eternally alone at the lunch table, unsure of how to speak to people or whom to speak to, employing one hopeless strategy after another to elicit affection from anybody at all. All of Everything Will Be Different is seen through such damaged eyes, and the performances Meltzer gets out of three of his actors are archetypal in this regard. Alex Fumero's unpopular, virginal Franklin is the avatar of every teenage scapegoat looking for a scapegoat of his own, sickened by the wretchedness he holds in common with others at the bottom of the high school social strata. Matthew Glass is every well-meaning adult trying to intercede in the life of a troubled youth, even while repulsed by that youth's pitifulness. And Nick Duckardt's angry, solipsistic Freddie is every jock who ever took the world as his birthright and then defiled it, exacting revenge for some unspecified trauma the rest of us could never know.
The other characters are less archetypal and more individualistic. Kimble's turn as Charlotte's dad is full of paradox — one senses he's the only one who loves her, but his love has turned corrosive; it's palpable in his every stilted gesture and guilty outburst of anger. Even at play's end, when resolution is hinted at, there is something awful in the way he hugs his daughter, suggesting that the incestuous impulses that have bubbled under throughout the show could explode at any minute. Jessica Farr's Heather, whom we believe to be Charlotte's only friend, is an obvious counterpoint: Popular but loving, tender but plucky, she is Charlotte's personal Helen.
Ceci Fernandez is one of the most beautiful girls you'll ever meet, and it is a tribute to her skills that audiences can quickly come to believe her character is as ugly as everyone says. Not that Charlotte admits it; even as she is denied solace wherever she seeks it, she is wrapped in a protective bubble of self-delusion that seems both more genuine and infinitely braver than the poses adopted by the heroes of ordinary survival stories. This is not one of those. This is a real survival story, the kind played out in every school in the world, where the heroine has neither self-image nor conviction to fall back on. Fernandez's performance is a dramatization of a scramble to be able to face oneself in the mirror — the smile she flashes not the stuff of conscious bravery, but of necessity.
There are shades of meaning in Everything Will Be Different's constant Hellenic allusions, in its incestuous subtexts, and in Charlotte's endless talk of her lost mother. But its greatest value is almost certainly in the way audiences of all kinds will watch the pitiful struggles onstage and beg Charlotte to fall over and die, just to spare herself and us any further indignities; and how those audiences will feel offended when she doesn't; and how they'll secretly wish to spit on her themselves, just to get even. That human beings can feel such a thing is very bad news. But if Everything Will Be Different is right about anything, we can feel sure we'll survive it.