Out West Arts: Performance at the end of the world

Opera, music, theater, and art in Los Angeles and beyond

Twisting By The Pool

November 03, 2010

Olga Wehrly and Tadhg Murphy in Penelope Photo: Robert Day

Perhaps the best performance I saw on my out-of-town excursion last weekend was Penelope, the latest theatrical collaboration between playwright Enda Walsh and Ireland’s Druid Theater Company. The production is currently running in its US premiere at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn. Walsh is again working with Mikel Murfi who directed Walsh’s The Walworth Farce and starred in The New Electric Ballroom. Audiences, including myself, have come to love the bite and surprising turns in Walsh’s visceral and sometimes surreal visions that can cut to the bone amid very big laughs and deep thoughts. His scenarios can become unnerving very rapidly and Penelope is no exception, although it is admittedly a more overtly philosophical piece. It’s also another splendid success.

Walsh uses the substrate of Homer’s Odyssey for the story. In particular he takes up the story of Penelope, Odysseus’ faithful wife who keeps over a hundred suitors at bay, refusing to remarry, during the twenty years that her husband is away fighting the Trojan War. She alternately encourages and refuses the marriage proposals the suitors ply her with until her husband returns to find his wife still faithful. In the end Odysseus kills all of the suitors as he and his wife are reunited. Penelope takes off from this original with a modern setting that directly references Homer’s characters but is unconcerned with plot elements in The Odyssey. The one act play takes place inside an emptied swimming pool where for Speedo-wearing men, all past their physical peak, await their chances to woo Penelope who resides in the house above. Although she appears to watch their performances on a closed-circuit TV feed from below, she speaks no lines. Although she is the recipient of the suitors' elaborate reflections in the play, she never addresses the men, instead acting as a blank wall for their own projections of self. Walsh is more interested in the relationships between the four suitors and what they have to say about love and fate.

The four men range in age and begin to reveal what has gone before – including the in-fighting between themselves in the frustrations of their increasingly Sisyphean task. The youngest of the remaining suitors Burns, played by Tadhg Murphy, meekly serves his older and somewhat more ridiculous peers. He soon becomes the voice of an alternate philosophy, however, questioning the way the suitors have gone about their business especially in light of what all four begin to perceive as their impeding doom. There are some lovely and hysterical soliloquies here and Walsh has his sights set on the big basic questions about masculinity and more importantly the endless struggle for love in all its futility. Penelope’s attention is caught by the remaining suitors words and she appears at the poolside as Burns makes his final pitch not for her love as much as a love among people for all humankind even when it is hopeless to do so. There are some beautiful turns of phrase here and even when things seem their most abstract they are at their most beautiful. Burns finally pronounces “Love is saved!” as the play reaches its dénouement. Enda Walsh’s Penelope brilliantly fuses the power of an epic Greek poem with his own modern world of internal interpersonal horrors and comes up with another great play that tackles the thorniest of issues. Penelope comes highly recommended and runs at St. Ann’s Warehouse thought November 14.


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