Take one part Beckett non-sequiturs. Add equal parts patented Ionesco loneliness and absurdity. Add a measure of Greek mythology, a heavy dollop of Irish wit, and a piquant dash of Hiberno-English slyness. Shake violently, pour the contents into the empty swimming pool of a dry, decaying, California-style seaside mansion that’s been magically teleported to the sky-blue shores of a windswept Aegean island, and what do you have?
It must be Enda Walsh’s Penelope, now playing at Studio Theatre and brought vividly to life by Galway’s famed Druid Theatre Company under the quiet but capable direction of Mikel Murphy. Penelope, which highlights the Druid’s first-ever appearance at Studio, is just part of a nearly two-month festival celebrating the work of Walsh, one of Ireland’s top contemporary playwrights who, for whatever reason, remains relatively unknown stateside.
Studio’s “New Ireland: The Enda Walsh Festival” hopes to raise Walsh’s profile here while creating a greater awareness of the vibrancy of contemporary Irish theater. And they’d ought to succeed quite brilliantly if Penelope’s Tuesday evening press opening was any indication. This play veritably sparkles with wit and wisdom, tragedy and comedy. Nearly all of its ninety headlong, nonstop minutes pulse relentlessly forward, driven by the paradox and challenge of contemporary humanity. Its only apparent flaw—a minor one at that—is the opening silent pantomime, which goes on just a tad too long.
To get into the mental space of this play, you have to discard any preconceptions you might have about ancient Greek epic tragedy, revisionist or not. Walsh’s Penelope takes place at the tail end of The Odyssey, Homer’s ancient epic poem charting wily King Odysseus’ victorious but tempest-tossed voyage back home to Ithaca from the recently concluded Trojan War.
In Homer’s epic, the exhausted and battered, Odysseus staggers ashore to discover that one final obstacle remains before he can reunite with his beloved wife, Penelope. He’s got to destroy his rivals, the suitor-usurpers who’ve been camped out near his palace for years, convinced one of their number will win the faithful Penelope’s hand and take over Odysseus’ kingdom.
That’s where Walsh’s Penelope picks things up, but with a twist. The interest of this play is not heroic Odysseus—he never appears at all. And it’s only peripherally about the title character herself (Olga Wehrly) who shows up briefly but wordlessly as the occasion permits.
Rather, Penelope is all about the hapless suitors. The four who remain to keep their hopeless vigil—doddering Fritz (Niall Buggy), blustery Dunne (Denis Conway), cowering Burns (Aaron Monaghan), and tough guy Quinn (Karl Shiels)—lounge about in a forlorn, empty swimming pool, middle-aged paunches and all.
The four preen, profile, and speechify clad in dingy bathrobes and form-fitting Speedo-type swimwear, all wildly inappropriate for their age and girth. Male dignity has clearly gone to pot here, replaced instead by lingering doubt and hollow self-delusion. The men of Penelope inhabit a mock epic, not a real one.
As we move through this uncomfortably funny visual spectacle, we learn that Murray, a fifth suitor, has recently offed himself. He’s been hounded to death by alpha-male Quinn whose sagging, 40-something body at least hints at a once virile youth. We also discover that each of the surviving suitors has just experienced the same troubling dream, wherein their long-defunct gas grill unit bursts into flames—an ill-omen, perhaps, of Odysseus’ return and their inevitable demise.
Yet they remain in Penelope’s empty pool, arguing amongst themselves and occasionally employing a microphone and videocam to broadcast their latest marriage proposals while gauging her response. She, in turn, coolly listens from above, listlessly gazing at their antics on her closed-circuit, flat screen TV before quietly departing in a silent gesture of rejection.
But pitching Penelope is not what these guys are really about. When it comes to seducing a woman, it’s clear their collective skill as would-be lovers has yet to outgrow an awkward adolescence. Odyssean threat or no, they’re mesmerized instead by visions of their impending mortality, in turn questioning themselves and their fellows as to what it all means.
As in much of Shaw, Walsh’s characters, not the paper-thin plot, is what makes Penelope compelling. You care more about what these nearly-noble losers have to say rather than what they actually do.
For Walsh, the endgame of Homer’s Odyssey is just a ruse, a construct, an exotic excuse to get four troubled characters talking in the spicy, gob smacking, prose-poetry that only the Irish can deploy. This endless but meaningful gabfest is an essential ingredient in a literary Irishman’s uniquely colorful, twitchingly funny, never-ending quest for revenge against the mother tongue of the country that almost destroyed his forbears.
Like Beckett’s Vladimir and Estragon, Fitz, Dunn, Burns, and Quinn are on a hopeless quest for meaning that will end without an acceptable answer. Despairing through all the bravado, they weigh their ruined lives in the balance, find them wanting, and are not sure why.
But en route to existential despair, there are plenty of surprises and a great deal of fun. The least-likely suitor gives the best and most memorable speech, while the self-appointed orator is a flop. The class bully turns out to have a wildly comical flair for the dramatic. The wimp, in the end, might be the most decisive of the lot. The best advice for experiencing Penelope: expect the unexpected. Get ready to be surprised.
In a play that’s mostly talk, albeit incredibly entertaining talk, you need a cast of actors who are comfortable slithering into their characters and unafraid to make physical fools of themselves in pursuit of high art. Druid’s cast for this production certainly fits the bill, and it helps even more that they’ve performed the play elsewhere before.
The result: No wobbly opening night here. These guys came to play. The rooster-strutting confidence of each of their characters plays out against a surprising vulnerability. You end up caring about all four in spite of your early inclinations.
Niall Buggy is quietly superb as Fitz, the oldest and arguably the most self-aware of the bunch. Occupying his downtime with a timeworn copy of The Odyssey, Buggy’s Fitz has more perspective on life. By default, he seems to serve as this crew’s father figure even as he competes against him.
Denis Conway’s Dunne marks a considerable contrast with Fitz. He’s the classic male braggart, a likeable, rambunctious fellow whose super-powers manifest in word rather than deed. His body, betrayed for too long by an inordinate love of beer and spirits, Conway’s Dunne is really a bit of a fool. But he’s made more human by his awareness of that fact, generating considerable sympathy for his character.
A wimp among wimps, Aaron Monaghan’s Burns is one of those characters that begin in insignificance but end in a surprise. He embodies that old cliché, “Still waters run deep.” Almost incapacitated in the beginning by the horror of Murray’s suicide, he mourns the loss of a man he called his friend and holds a smoldering resentment toward Quinn for his role in that event. It’s a resentment you sense will never blossom into action. But every man has a breaking point and Burns has his as well.
As bullyboy Quinn, the least likeable character in this ensemble, Karl Shiels arguably personifies the modern corporate pyramid climber. For Quinn, everything is justified just as long as he wins, so none of his competitors should have hard feelings, right?
Quinn’s problem is that he understands no one but himself and his ambitions, and he understands those imperfectly at best. Shiels—whose obviously dyed hair is comically slicked into a forward-leaning wave that owes some debt to both Ronald Reagan and Depression era cartoon character Skeezix Wallet—is also, paradoxically the comedian in the group, an actor whose gift for Benny Hill-like physical comedy comes straight at you when you least expect it.
Although Penelope is not a speaking role in this play, you have to give credit to the icily beautiful Olga Wehrly for making her appearances radiant significance. Elegantly clad in a flatteringly elegant sea-blue, above-the-knee, scoop-backed toga-dress, she generally remains aloof toward her endless parade of tedious suitors.
But her own deeply burdened soul is still capable of listening to another’s true heart when it speaks with truth, sincerity, and conviction. Which in the end is a lesson that might benefit us all.
Penelope is scheduled to run thru April 3, 2011 at Studio Theatre, 1501 14th St NW, Washington, DC.
by Enda Walsh
Directed by Mikel Murphy
A Druid Theatre of Galway production, presented by Studio Theatre
Reviewed by Terry Ponick
Running time: 1 hour, 35 minutes without intermission.