devouring theatre, film, and food
The Greeks, who gave us theatre and big, fat weddings, have always been a rich source of inspiration for contemporary culture makers. From James Joyce’sUlysses to Disney’s Hercules, the iconic gods and legends of ancient Greece have been re-imagined, rebutted, and redone by painters, philosophers, and playwrights. Penelope, a new play from the pen of Irish writer Edna Walsh, draws upon these distant myths to create a visually arresting, intellectually stimulating, but emotional lacking piece of theater which entertains in fits and starts.
Ancient myth (and a black-and-white comic in the Steppenwolf program) tells of the warrior Ulysses, who wages war, wins it, and pledges to return home to his love Penelope. In the ten years’ meanwhile, hundreds of suitors vie for her hand while her husband is away. Walsh’s Penelope starts with the final four. In a drained swimming pool, the last of the suitors – one in each of their 30s, 40s, 50s, or 60s – have set up camp and outwitted and outlasted their weaker competition. The lounge chairs of suitors that have fallen before are haphazardly stacked in the corners of the pool, creating a sculpture-like symbol of failed love that looms throughout the piece.
The Speedo-clad men enjoy modern luxuries – a gas grill, potato chips, and a table full of alcohol and shot glasses – as they wait to make their daily plea to Penelope (the silent and stunning Logan Vaughn). A blaring siren and red lights announce her entrances, as the suitors scramble to fix their hair and ready their remarks. They beg – with spoken word and vaudeville routines – as she watches on a flat screen from her secluded loft. Their pleas fall flat, but Fitz, the eldest suitor originally cast as John Mahoney and now played by ensemble member Tracy Letts, catches her attention. Letts brings a boisterous energy to the weathered suitor, who hides his shyness in a book, but speaks with raw sincerity.
While none of the men are ultimately successful, it is their struggle and its universality that forms the shaky core of the work. Despite the trappings of the contemporary – gas grills and potato chips – the ancient and eternal battles shine through: unrequited love, fierce competition, and the quest for friendship amidst it all. A strong ensemble (Yasen Peyankov as the fiery Quinn, Ian Barford as the pained Burns, and Scott Jaeck as the chaotic Dunne) under the simple direction of Amy Morton bring powerful performances to the swimming pool floor. But at its core, Penelope is more thought experiment than emotional journey, more clever than clear, and more brain than heart.
By play’s end, the audience has become a sort of meta-Penelope. You watch the performances, but your interest ebbs and flows. You appreciate the wit and devotion, but the recited words start to blur meld together. In the end, you’re left waiting silently for something more, something truer to finally come home.
Swim with Penelope at Steppenwolf through February 5. Tickets available at steppenwolf.org.