'Penelope': Theater Review

John Flynn
Intoxicatingly allusive extension of postwar absurd theater into a 21st century variety of existential bleakness, buoyed by its own unique language. 

This Greek riff, hinging on the myth of Odysseus' wife, is penned by Irish playwright Enda Walsh, screenwriter of Steve McQueen's debut feature, "Hunger."

If Nietzsche could announce the death of God in the late 19th century, it was certainly old news by the time of Sartre and Beckett. Similarly, the power of the absurdity of the modern condition has withered under the persistent shadow of theatrical giants. Our contemporary quandary may be not so much the struggle over a meaningless existence but what to do and where to go after raging about the dying of the light has itself lost its heroic dimension.

It’s challenging for a playwright to find a path to pursue his or her own vision while traversing such scorched earth. Much-acclaimed Irish writer Enda Walsh (The Walworth Farce, The New Electric Ballroom, screenwriter for Steve McQueen’s debut feature, Hunger, and a Tony winner for the musical Once) ventures with Penelope further along the path of his forebears: suggesting a Pinter without pauses, a Beckett without rue, a Stoppard with rude bluntness. It’s not an easy work to assimilate, revealing its coherence with a slow-burn intensity, but for me, it sheds some of the self-conscious preciousness of Walsh's previous plays and seems to me quite the best of his work I’ve yet encountered.

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Four unflatteringly Speedo-clad men of varying ages, none still young, scramble into a long-drained and very deep decrepit swimming pool, a barbecue in the corner with this world’s sole remaining sorry sausage, in yet another of Rogue Machine’s trademark sets comprised of detritus. They speak cryptically, their buddy banter streaked with menace and fierce competition. Only gradually does the context emerge: These are the remnants of what had once been many. The bloodstains from the latest casualty, Murray, bullied into suicide just yesterday, still adorn the sickly colored pool walls.

The situation may queasily mirror reality-show contests, but the situation derives from Homer’s The Odyssey: All are the remaining woebegone suitors of the unattainable Penelope (silent Holly Fulger), futilely courted over the 20 years her husband, Odysseus, has been missing. The gambit bears no little resemblance to Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, here where tangential characters unseen in the foundational text become the protagonists, the drama of those ephemeral stooges becoming a basis for more universal identification than the classic heroes.

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While there may be an honest fellowship among these hapless contenders, necessity requires them to be alternately ruthless and strategically obsequious. As on Survivor, the quickest route to elimination is to be perceived to be in a position to prevail. As they jockey for crucial edges of advantage versus one another, each must ultimately resort to their own eloquence to attempt to persuade Penelope to accept the virtues of their importuning.

And everyone masterfully uses their words, replete with arcane references to texts ancient and recent. The oldest, Fitz (Richard Fancy) spellbinds with poetic rhetoric to conjure up an existence beyond mere words. The most dominant and narcissistic, Quinn (Brian Letscher), dresses and cross-dresses as couples of legendary romance (Rhett & Scarlett, Napoleon & Josephine, Romeo & Juliet). The most pragmatic, paunchy Dunne (Ron Bottitta), beseeches with a salesman’s practiced focus and barely masked flop sweat. And as the abused and subservient figure Burns, Scott Sheldon cunningly rebels when the opportunity presents itself, flashily seeking to impress with feats of prestidigitation.

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The tricky and treacherous dialogue here, like Beckett’s tramps on meth, requires an alert ear by actors and audience alike. These nimble players, under impressively precise direction by John Perrin Flynn, execute their complex beats with an elaborate and sophisticated sense of rhythm, each individually grandiloquent yet orchestrated for intricate interplay. Their characters may not be attending to one another’s preoccupations, but the actors nevertheless listen acutely to one another.

Walsh has the brio and confidence to echo, even parody, his models with unstinting assurance of his own acuity. As drunk on language as his misbegotten suitors, for whom seduction is only a camouflage for the imperative of survival, Walsh generates a torrent of speech both articulate and obscure, the traditional Celtic weapon to forestall the depressing inevitability of mortality. Though we never see Penelope unraveling her weaving work each night to insure she never finishes her art, her perspective, too, can be seen as gender-equal bleak.

Cast: Ron Bottitta, Richard Fancy, Brian Letscher, Scott Sheldon, Holly Fulger
Playwright: Enda Walsh
Director: John Perrin Flynn
Scenic designer: Stephanie Kerley Schwartz

Lighting designer: Ric Zimmerman
Sound designer: Christopher Moscatiello
Costume designer: Lauren Tyler
Production manager: Amanda Mauer
Producers: John Perrin Flynn & Brenda Davidson
Co-producer: Ann Bronston