Saturday, December 17, 2011

'PENELOPE': ODYSSEY AND ODDITY - 'Penelope' at Steppenwolf Theatre

Irish playwright Enda Walsh is way hot right now. With an acclaimed production of his play Misterman at St. Ann's Warehouse and the indie-movie-turned-razzmatazz-stage-show, Once, for which he wrote the book, bound for Broadway in the Spring, Walsh is experiencing the most allusive of all theatrical happenstance: Audience and Critical consensus. El Dorado.

Unfortunately, for lack of a better El Dorado aphorism, "all that glitters is not gold." Mr. Walsh's relatively new Penelope opened on Sunday at Steppenwolf Theatre, and while the play's merits are certainly many and varied, the production fails to bring thrilling life to Walsh's dangerous poetry.

Penelope could, in theory, act as a companion piece to Homer's Odyssey, with Penelope, the wife of Odysseus, appearing in both.While the warrior Odysseus is away for ten years, slaying this and that, epically poeticizing such and such, countless suitors have attempted and failed to win the heart of his lady. Burns (Ian Barford), Fitz (Tracy Letts), Quinn (Yasen Peyankov), and Dunne (Scott Jaeck) are the final four; hundreds having fallen before them.

But while they are each mathematically closer to taking Penelope as their wife, they couldn't be further away spiritually. Having fallen into complacent daily routine, the four now laze about the day under the scorching sun, sipping mixed drinks and rattling off intellectualisms...Until one day when they all have the same perilous dream. The four dream of Odysseus' return that very day, and with it their impending slaughter. So with renewed sense of urgency, they kick it into high gear. Someone's gonna get Penelope, and it's gonna be me.

Amy Morton, who directed Clybourne Park at Steppenwolf earlier this season, is once again at the driver's seat for Penelope, and the car is safely in cruise control. Morton's direction is irritatingly sparse, with the chaos of the spoken words and the ramshackle swimming pool set in stark contrast to the glacially slow action occurring onstage. Not intriguing contrast; Confounding contrast. The void of directorial dynamism makes events, really important group murders for example, indistinguishable from characters reading a book or partaking in some sumptuous Bugles. The tone frequently flatlines, and I can't help but wonder if that a result of a fundamental misunderstanding of style.

Steppenwolf's Penelope wrongly confuses the unrelenting wackiness of Enda Walsh's play for Beckett-esque absurdism. Yes, Penelope is undoubtedly obscure and real weird. It's a spinoff of The Odyssey propelled by speedo-adorned men on the fringe of or in the throws of middle age. Not quite what was covered in World Lit class, but not theatrical absurdism either. The plot is simple, the characters' desires are clear, and the strange means they employ to live out those desires make absolute sense in the world of this play. Sadly here, the characters traipse about the wading pool with an "absurd" wanton purposelessness that is only occasionally funny, rarely profound, and frankly quite boring.

The ensemble of four actors, while strong on their own, lack any discernible group cohesion. Of course, some might attribute the absence of spark to the production's late addition of Tracy Letts, who replaced John Mahoney with just over two weeks until opening. But Letts as Fitz, the oldest of the four characters, delivers by far the most touching performance of the pack. Scott Jaeck's fifty year old Dunne handles the text with similar pathos and likability, while Ian Barford whines all the way through the play, painting Burns an a one dimensional villain.

Yasen Peyankov garners the most giggles with his performance as the forty year old Quinn, I think, because of the sharp Slavic twang of his natural voice. Walsh's language is distinctly European, and doesn't really carry the same punch and gusto when sighed out with a tired Midwestern droll. While obviously not Irish (...well, he could be, I suppose...), Peyankov has a rhythmic musicality to his voice and persona that greatly lends itself to comic zaniness of the play. Unfortunately his wooing of Penelope, a grandiose, costumed vaudevillian display, falls flat, and doesn't serve as the dramatic culmination it is intended to.

For the most part though, the actors' most powerful moments are their individual appeals to Penelope (a stoic Logan Vaughn), in which the hopelessly devoted quartet push theatrical extremes that the rest of the play silently screams out for. Poetry slams, interpretive masques, and leopard print bathrobe strip teases are all fair game in the war for Penelope's affection. She observes their antics, as she has for decades, on a flat screen tv in her living room.

Yes, her living room. Living rooms, swimming pools, barbecues, and beach chairs populate a very different Greece. Walt Spangler's set is a surprising delight, and much more creatively frenzied than Steppenwolf's typical scenic offerings. The action of the play occurs at the bottom of an empty swimming pool that looks and feels like a Palm Springs nuclear war bunker. Rust corrodes the edges, a stream of blood seeps down a drain, and pool chairs are littered with seeming disregard. Piles of pool chairs that extend out into the theatre. A pool chair for every fallen suitor of Penelope; a dark, yet sickly sweet homage to the omnipresent dead.

Ana Kuzmanic is the lucky jester of the design team, having crafted the speedos and kimono-y bathrobes that provide for many a sight gag. Major props should be given to Kuzmanic and her actors. They figuratively own those speedos with confidence and bravery, and their willingness to really put it all out there really endears the audience to their forlorn plight.

The sound design and original music by Rob Milburn and Michael Bodeen is noticeably haphazard, not quite fitting the action or filling the space. Penelope, with its decisive, creatively lush setting easily facilitates boldness and experimentation with sound. But like so much else of this production, those opportunities are ignored.

Penelope is far from miserable. There are laughs; just not enough of them. There are insights; just not enough of them. Put plainly, there is just not enough. Yet concurrent with these glaring deficiencies, the play's slim ninety minute running time actually feels much longer than it is, and not to the theatergoer's benefit. Midway through the play, you might find yourself rooting for Odysseus.-Johnny Oleksinski

'Penelope' runs through February 5, 2012 at Steppenwolf's Downstairs Theatre.