Those of you acquainted with the story of Odysseus might find the premise of Enda Walsh’s Penelope peculiar. It is nonetheless, powerful, pensive, provocative, amusing. While heroic, formidable warrior Odysseus is away at battle for 20 years, hundreds of suitors crash his home, wooing Penelope and helping themselves to the “amenities.” When Penelope opens (set in the present day) the competitors vying for Penelope’s hand have been reduced to four : Dunne, Fitz, Quinn and Burns. They are living (or at least, dwelling) at the bottom of a drained pool, a truly startling milieu, thanks to set designer Russell Parkman. There are tables for food, liquor, a barbecue grill, chaise lounges. The four men hang out in bathrobes and Speedos, waiting their turn to step up to a closed circuit television and microphone, and make their pitch to Penelope. She lolls above ground, under a panoply, on a daybed behind a diaphanous curtain, never speaking a word. By all appearances Quinn is the Alpha, but it just might be Dunne, who growls less, but seems to command more respect.
Penelope is a comedy that practically considers many lofty issues, warfare, intense romance, male friendship, vulnerability, the actual and true nature of Love. There is a vivid, large blood stain on the side of the pool, the last vestiges of Murray, dear friend of Burns and presumably, Wooer # 5. Murray was slain by Quinn, which, naturally, Burns fiercely resents. (Burns is the most passive of the four.) Quinn dismisses Burns, proclaiming that this is the nature of competition, suggesting that men can’t be genuine friends anyway, and implying a homoerotic component to any need to connect with other men. For all his ferocity (and this is just one of Penelope’s brilliant payoffs) Quinn has the most sublimely goofy sequence in the show, so resolutely silly you can’t resist. Enlisting Burns’ help (and performing to Herb Alpert and The Tijuana Brass)
he enacts “Great Lovers Through the Ages” including Napoleon and Josephine, Romeo and Juliet, Jackie and John Kennedy.
Walsh submerges us in the realm of male logic, the remaining men are neither physically magnificent nor far outside the parameters of height-weight proportionate. They’re just guys, one is a thinker, one a fighter, one a sage and one a self-styled Poet. They recount an incident where they held Burns “prisoner” in the box the grill was delivered in, quite a prank for grown men. They act out, they philosophize, they argue and debate, they consider meaning, actions and survival, they get ugly. Walsh has created a subtle piece that is initially funny, then escalates to more painful and terrifying insights into the nature of attachment, warfare and the consequences of solipsism and specious values. Once again Undermain (and the cast, and director Stan Wojewodski Jr, et al) has shown impeccable judgment and skill in this production of Penelope, that had the audience tickled with helpless glee one moment, and gasping at the end.
I offer my abject apologies to Undermain. I wasn’t able to get my review posted before Penelope closed January 26th. It starred Miranda Parham (Penelope) Bruce DuBose (Dunne) R. Bruce Elliot (Fitz) Gregory Lush (Burns) and Max Hartman (Quinn).