— Patrick Keating and Alex Ferguson. Photo credit: Tim Matheson
Four men, waiting, waiting. They’re the last of a hundred suitors who have spent twenty years in Ithaca courting the lovely Penelope, wife of King Odysseus, who has been off fighting the Trojan War. Will she accept the inevitability that her husband is dead and marry one of them? Or will Odysseus miraculously return, slaughter the suitors and reclaim his wife and throne?
This is the scenario in Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s long one-act, Penelope, very loosely adapted from Homer’s The Odyssey, getting its Vancouver premiere from Rumble Theatre at The Cultch.
Walsh's play is just the latest literary treatment of the Odysseus-Penelope story that assumes the perspective not of the great Greek hero on his long voyage home from Troy, battling the cyclops, resisting the sirens and placating the gods. Contemporary authors take more interest in the wars on the homefront, the fates of those left behind. In The Penelopiad Margaret Atwood focuses on Penelope and the servant women surrounding her. Here we get a look at the final four male suitors: stubborn, resilient, maybe idiotically patient men, taking their last best chance at what they call "the prize."
These four are no ancient Greek heroes. They’re louts named Dunne (Sean Devine), Quinn (Alex Lazaridis Ferguson), Burns (Kyle Jespersen) and Fitz (Patrick Keating), who drink whisky, barbecue sausages with a propane torch and plot strategies to win the hand of silent, imperious Penelope (Lindsay Winch). How far will they go to be the victor--or to insure that one of the others is not?
In Walsh's postmodern scenario they're 21st century guys with the accoutrements of modern day, caught up in an ancient classical plot. They spend their time in bathing suits and flip flops in an empty, disgusting swimming pool (a terrific design by Drew Facey), smeared with blood and other unidentifiable fluids, arguing, posturing, insulting each other and fearing brutal Odysseus’ return. Until the end, when she emerges to listen with some interest to the men's pitches, Penelope remains a shadowy figure, sitting half-hidden high above the pool.
Walsh does a good job of differentiating the characters. Dunne is pompous, flabby and actorly, full of himself until Penelope's latest rejection reduces him, as he says, “to a fat man in a Speedo.” Fitz, the old guy, reads Homer and philosophizes about creating a comforting world of nothingness. Alpha-male Quinn (he calls himself a "sensuous Ninja”) embraces a vicious survival-of-the-fittest ethic, mocking the liberal humanitarianism that sometimes rears its head among the others. He's especially hard on young Burns, who is treated like a servant by the older men. Burns keeps the flame of idealism alive. He still believes in friendship and even love.
With their ruthless competitiveness and self-important penchant for ridiculous philosophizing, these guys could be characters in a David Mamet play except that they talk at great length, very much in the Irish rhetorical manner. In that same tradition Walsh provides them with some witty, juicy verbiage. "The mind," says Dunne, "is a bucket of eels." In the middle of a discussion about what they might do to avoid Odysseus' wrath, Burns offers a Latin motto. Translation: "It matters not; we are meat on a barbecue." Sometimes, though, you'd just like them to stop blabbing.
As each of the four gets a solo turn at wooing Penelope in front of a microphone, the performers find differing levels of success in dealing with the overwritten script. Devine works a little too hard to make Dunne mannered and funny (although the opening night audience loved him). Ferguson takes acting honours as the ruthless, egotistical Quinn. (Conflict of interest alert: Alex is my student at UBC.) It's hard to know how to take Burns' concluding speech lauding hope, freedom, trust, goodness, happiness. Jespersen delivers it with ingenuous sincerity. But his cry "I can't let love die!" has a curious ring amid all the comic cynicism of men behaving badly.
The best antidote to excessive talk on stage is theatrical action, and director Stephen Drover is this show's real star in that regard. He keeps coming up with imaginative physical business, including a screamingly funny love-mime at the end that includes Napoleon and Josephine, Brett and Scarlett, Romeo and Juliet, and a brilliant rendition of JFK and Jackie, driven by a ferocious performance from Ferguson and Jespersen's amazing dance routine.
Though it can't seem to make up its mind what it wants to say about love, loyalty, and the dog-eat-dog world of male rivalry, Penelope is a stimulating evening of intelligent comedy. It kicks off The Cultch’s 40th anniversary season as a sure-fire hit.