Theater review: Third Rail’s ‘Penelope’ in a romp

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.

****

Yes, there’s a lot of talk, but action, too, that upends a bowl of Bugles, that pours a steady series of martinis, that grills a sausage, that ignites Homer, that rolls large bellies and that pauses for “official” pleading sessions for the hand of Penelope, which are transmitted to a large screen in her upstairs apartment (which the audience can see).

Tim True attempts to seduce Penelope one last time./Owen Carey

All of this happens at the bottom of an empty swimming pool (the scenic designer is Demetri Pavlatos), where the gang gathers for the day’s pitch to Penelope. It’s filthy, naturally, and bloody from the previous night, with a non-functioning grill at one end and a table with snacks and drinks at the other. The audience looks down into it from a steep rake on one side. On the other side, the villa rises close by, turning the pool into an arena, a little coliseum where the gladiators do battle. The design is as clever as Walsh’s wordplay, and so is the sound design, with its parade of mostly Sixties lounge music (the Tijuana Brass!).

A fine production of a juicy play, then, but what’s the point? More than a laugh or two. The suitors receive a premonition in the form of a shared dream, which they interpret to mean that Odysseus is coming and coming soon: The mighty warrior and genius trickster, heart of Penelope’s heart, Death. Can the competitors rally against a common foe? Can they form an alliance to win Penelope’s love for one of them, perhaps defeating Odysseus in the process? Or are they doomed to a burial ground littered with corn snacks? Under pressure humans change, but do they transform?

Think of it as a little experiment that Walsh is conducting, which is a central function of theater, really, to conduct onstage experiments in human behavior (the purpose of which is as much to give some release and enlightenment to the audience, an experiment itself). Walsh was born, educated and started working in the theater in Ireland, studying with the great comic novelist Roddy Doyle, and I’d say that “Penelope” owes as much to Doyle as it does Beckett or another Irish “Odyssey” adaptor and word juggler James Joyce or for that matter to Tom Stoppard, whose approach to Hamlet in “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” resembles Walsh’s work here, enlarging and reimagining a small piece of an epic. Our condition may be tragic, but it has its comic elements, too, if you stand back a bit and look at it.

If Walsh isn’t ready to come down one way or another on our prospects ultimately, he does offer us a warning. The “godlike Odysseus” sails back to Ithaka and Penelope. Penelope’s eyes always scan the horizon for the first glimpse of his ship. His hounds are baying for him as though they can smell him already. He promises destruction. And even if it’s all just a myth, we have to get out of that gross pool somehow, because the constant pitching is killing us, day by day.

NOTES

This made me laugh, a little piece from a 2007 interview in the Guardian:

The Guardian: What one song would feature on the soundtrack to your life?

Enda Walsh: What a Fool Believes by the Doobie Brothers. I first heard it when I was 10. I couldn’t believe that white, bearded men could sound so cool.

And the song itself…

But what a fool believes he sees
No wise man has the power to reason away.
What seems to be
Is always better than nothing…

Here’s Marty Hughley’s review in The Oregonian: “As smart and barbed as Walsh’s writing is, by turns touchingly poetic and hilariously crass, it helps immensely that we’re watching a tight-knit cast of Third Rail stalwarts, directed by Philip Cuomo, adept at riding the line that darts here between hammy theatricality and psychological understatement.”

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