Review "A Brief History of Helen of Troy": Not So Pretty Dark Comedy

Steep Theatre presents


Written by Mark Schultz
Directed by Joanie Schultz
Thru  October 30th
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Running time:  One hour and forty minutes with no intermission


Reviewed by Katy Walsh


‘Porn and I are a good match.’  A teenage girl tries to get her guidance counselor on board with her chosen career path.   Steep Theatre presents the Chicago premiere of A BRIEF HISTORY OF HELEN OF TROY.  Charlotte is entering the rite of passage for all young girls:  what product to use?  On that road to womanhood, every girl asks those important questions:  do I tweeze, exfoliate or flatten it?  Charlotte wants to be beautiful.  Helen of Troy was beautiful.  Her deceased mother was beautiful.  Charlotte wants her beauty to make countries go to war, to be mourned for its devastating loss, or to, at bare minimum, snag a boyfriend.   In her quest to glam it up, she’s not alone.  Or is she?  Heather is her pretty gal pal with product samples and an adoring father.  Gary is a guidance counselor with an affinity for photographing birds and breaking into the porn industry.  Freddie is Charlotte’s boyfriend that loves her bedspread, cake and blow jobs.  Charlotte’s dad is a drunken mess that neglects her and calls her ‘ugly.’ Or are they?  A BRIEF HISTORY OF HELEN OF TROY is where beauty goes beyond skin deep into a mental haze of delusion.  Playwright Mark Schultz penned a dark comedy that isn’t pretty.


Joanie Schultz (no relation to the playwright) directs the intensity at a disturbing pace.  Real or imagined scenarios are staged all around a disconnected father in a drunken, TV watching stupor.  Brief respites from disconcerting conversations are the interspersed reports delivered by Charlotte about Helen of Troy.  To enhance the momentary tranquility, the bedroom wall transforms to a beach scene (scenic designer Chelsea Warren ).  Beach fades out. Angst bursts in.  On the stage during the entire duration, Caroline Neff (Charlotte) is one tumultuous teen.  Neff rants on in fantasy or reality with non-ending demands for attention.   The play starts with the father (Peter Moore) calling Charlotte ‘too needy’ in the wake of her mother’s death.  (My first thought in the opening scene was “Oh no, Harper Regan died.” A past play putting Neff and Moore in the family way).  Moore parents Neff with uncomfortable abuse.  He delivers ‘you’re ugly’ with a matter-of-fact authority.  Bringing lip gloss and sass, Katy Boza (Heather) is hilarious cheerleading Neff through a makeover.   Michael Salinas (Gary) garners laughs emphasizing ‘realistic’ as the guidance counselor.  Salinas goes from helpful to seductive to baffled in a what-really-happened montage.      


Shultz imagines growing up an unattractive teenage girl.  It’s a very relatable subject for most women who have endured awkward stages of zits, diets and perms.  Even if your mom is alive and your best friend isn’t imaginary, all teenage girls still endure periods of being all alone in a glossy, photo touched-up world.  Feeling ugly isn’t Shultz’s heroine’s real problem.  It’s being ugly!  Shultz has written Charlotte as a girl that is a cross between mean and pathetic. What no inner beauty?   So, she’s no beauty queen.  How about Miss Congeniality?  Most ugly ducklings get an endearing quality that overcomes their awkwardness.  Charlotte makes good soup!?  Come on the audience needs a little more to grasp on to forge a connection. Instead of feeling empathy when she is slapped, I am apathetic and a little pleased.   Shultz goes for the absurd with a dark comedy where I champion the drunk father over the orphan daughter. 


Still waiting for his awkward unattractive phase, Joshua Volkers says about the show, “I wanted better.  I expected better.”         


Blocks away from Steep Theatre, La Fonda, 5350 N. Broadway, offers authentic Mexican dishes.  No burritos.  No quesadillas.  No website.  It’s old school. Thursday night offers a $5 margarita special.  Pretty sweet deal!  We order a round.  Then, we split the beef empanada appetizer and the grilled chicken entrée.  The chicken comes with healthy helpings of guacamole, rice and plantains.   Even sharing the dish, there are still leftovers.  Gorgeous!  We finish our margaritas and step to steep.         

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