by Sergei Burbank · February 21, 2014
There is an inherent tension whenever one tries to dramatize artistic dissolution. To mount a show about barely-functional artists, the artists must in fact embody the opposite qualities: they meet deadlines, achieve goals, and make it on time for curtain. How, then, can a production succeed when, at its very essence, it is diametrically opposed to its subject? Charlotte the Destroyer sets out to try, a one-act examination of a failing artist with a successful creation -- so successful that it calls into question who is actually in control.
The Woman (O’Leary) lives in bohemian squalor somewhere along the L line with her enabling / co-dependent lover (Rodriguez). A published children’s book author, the Woman has decided to shift into novels, following Charlotte (the protagonist of her children’s book series) into young adulthood. Her ambition is complicated by an ongoing drinking problem, which allows an otherwise normal writer’s aversion to deadlines to metastasize to truly disastrous proportions. The scenes she tries to write for the new novel, embodied in the space by characters only she can see, repeatedly spin out of control into incredibly dark, dysfunctional recesses -- and while the Woman claims these plot twists are not of her own volition, it’s clear to us that the parallel unraveling of both her book and personal life is being driven by the same demons.
Unfolding in a series of disjointed episodes, the script hits all the right notes in portraying the maddening contradictions that is life with an artist who struggles with a substance abuse problem. The Woman flashes instantaneously from belligerence to complaisance, presenting a series of moving targets for the Man to hit: struggling with his own dependence on drink, it is only guaranteed that he will miss them all, as whatever he does is the opposite of what she wants. The squalor of their life together is tragic in its inevitability: there is no possibility of changing the course of events onstage: any hope any character has of a happier outcome in the world of the play is by escaping it entirely.
The play comes to life in its imagined novel sequences. As the central characters of the “real” world go without names, the novel’s characters do. It is clear that while life for the Woman and Man plods on in shades of alcohol-muted gray, the colors and emotions of the fictional characters are all too vivid. Charlotte, embodied with a terrific anarchic alacrity by Gretchen Knapp, is terrifying: initially one suspects that she is perhaps an Eloise run amok, with all the comic potential of watching a character of pure id let loose in a world with actual consequences that entails. With each additional glimpse into her world, however, her pathological and downright evil impulses come into sharper focus. Once her agency expands beyond the page and spills into the Woman’s world, a final showdown between creator and creation is inevitable: and given our Woman’s handicaps and Charlotte’s demonic will, all bets are off.
Acted gamely by a strong ensemble cast, Charlotte the Destroyer paints a bleak picture of the artist’s dilemma: they are compelled to create, even to the point of self-destruction.