penelope

Chris Murray, Bruce Burkhartsmeier, Michael O’Connell and Tim True in Third Rail Rep’s “Penelope” by Enda Walsh/Owen Carey

The title is “Penelope” but it may as well be “Godot.” In Enda Walsh’s dark comedy, Penelope gets more face time than Godot ever got from Beckett (which is just to say she gets a little), but she has the same number of lines—exactly none.

That’s because Penelope is no longer “real” to her tattered band of suitors, down to four after years of disastrously bad wooing and the previous night’s bloodshed. She’s an unattainable ideal, to us a symbol of crafty steadfastness in her loyalty to her husband Odysseus and to them… well, it varies. She’s a construct, not quite a figment perhaps but moving in that direction, and winning the hand in marriage of a construct over a long period of time will reduce a man to his base elements, paring him back to his nub, leave him in a condition of metaphysical doubt and prey to impulse.

At least that’s how Enda Walsh imagines it in “Penelope,” which Third Rail Repertory Theatre opened this weekend at the Winningstad Theatre in a production sharp, daring and superbly acted by four of the city’s best actors (overseen by the silent Britt Harris as Penelope). In 90 minutes, Christopher David Murray, Michael O’Connell, Tim True and Bruce Burkhartsmeier rant and snivel, wrestle and burlesque, boast and buckle under the weight of their impossible labor, which is more enduring themselves and their own company than it is winning Penelope’s hand.

It’s big acting, successfully tamed by director Philip Cuomo, broad then small and intense, comic then tragic. The big bully Quinn (O’Connell) gets to play the fool, too. The comic aging, empty scholar Fitz (Burkhartsmeier) finds his tongue for a moment and describes the “little nothing” within himself so plaintively that even the remote Penelope is moved to pull back the curtain of her second floor window and express something like sorrow, maybe, or existential allegiance. For love, the younger non-entity Burns (Murray) revolts violently against the order of the company. And the balloon of the grandiloquent Dunne (True) bursts numerous times, over-inflated by so much gas, leaving him sad and small.

Continues…