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Treason: It’s Just a Story:  Penelope by Enda Walsh, The Studio Theater, Washington, DC, March 15-April 3

I take notice when the Druid Theater Company comes to town.  Their productions are uniformly excellent – most recently, I greatly enjoyed their wonderful production of the Cripple of Inishmaan at the Kennedy Center in February.

Their latest offering is the kick-off play of Studio Theatre’s NEW IRELAND Festival –  Enda Walsh’s Penelope, playing from March 15 until May 1.

A little about Mr. Walsh: he has written 15 plays, two of which have been adapted as films, he co-wrote a shatteringly brilliant art film (Hunger), and he has become recognized around the world as one of the greatest playwrights in the business, all before turning 43.  Not bad.

NOW: Penelope.

Imagine a play built from the opening of Homer’s Odyssey, reset into modern times, starring four characters pulled from a nameless crowd, without Odysseus, and discarding most of the plot.  It calls to mind the setup of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are dead – two minor characters puzzling over the peephole view they have of the great tragedy happening around them –but unlike Stoppard, Walsh is not merely conflating Waiting for Godot with Hamlet.  He is after something more.

It is an odd conceit – four men, in a drained swimming pool, competing in an American Idol-meets-Survivor competition of oration and panegyric for the hand of a widow (Penelope) and her dead husband’s (Odysseus’) riches.  Every day, they gather at the pool from their homes, drink, cavort, and wait until a klaxon sounds, a spotlight comes on, a microphone and stand is produced, and one of the four delivers words of such love as might win Penelope’s heart.  She sits, beautiful and austere, distant and immobile, in a glass hallway above them while they deliver their speeches, never moving, never looking at them, until she departs, alone.  They leave, return, repeat.

At the opening of the play, the blood of a fifth competitor adorns one side of the pool – a suicide, driven mad by the hectoring of one of the survivors.  Gradually, we discover that the suitors have been assembling there, in the pool, for years, along with more than 100 others, and they’re all been driven mad by the wait, by their failures, by each other.

The play is lunacy, and it should not work, and from the opening scene of the muscle-bound and vain Quinn (played by the fiercely physical Karl Shiels) preparing, eating, and delivering an ode to a sausage, it seems odd, forced, and unworkable.

Quinn’s jet-black hair is worked into an absurd 50’s body-builder quiff, and his waning physique is tucked snugly into a red speedo.  He treats the other three with a commanding contempt – most of all for the weak and geeky Burns.  Burns (played by a wonderfully disguised Aaron Monaghan) wears a party hat, a robe, thick, taped glasses, and a hang-dog demeanor, fetching Quinn’s drinks and wordlessly timing his moves to be ready for Quinn’s beck and call.  He occasionally returns to his starting position – cleaning the blood of the suicide off the side of the pool (we will soon discover that he friends with the suicide).

Two older men, the bald and medication-addled Fitz (veteran stage and screen actor Niall Buggy) and the loquacious and insufferable Dunne (stage, screen, and television actor Denis Conway) join Quinn and Burns in the pool, wearing robes, putting on their sunscreen, preparing gin and tonics, and generally looking like four daft men on a tropical beach.  Burns prances around like Johnnypateenmike in the Cripple of Inishmaan, living off being the center of attention and grudgingly conceding the limelight.

Gradually, as they deliver salubrious soliloquys or cut into each other with incisive verbal volleys, we learn more about each character, their relationships with themselves and each other.  They are, each of them, storytellers, taking turns peacocking before a woman, seeking to impress her, all the while alpha-dogging each other for supremacy in the pack, seeking advantage where they can.  But these are the last four, and there is a certain toughness about them, impervious as they are to each other’s mental jabs.

Dunne and Quinn fancy themselves quite a bit – more than the other two – and compete for the center of the stage.  Dunne does so more laughably, since his self-regard is not backed by any evident charms.  His self-revelations are tinged with bitterness, and, when he (the first to declaim to Penelope), delivers his oration, it descends into self-loathing and bile, sputtering out into awkwardness.  It’s a remarkable collapse – his oration starts a theatrical mess, verges on beauty, and then veers off the cliff into a great car crash of an ending, leaving him humiliated.

Fitz spends much of the play looking happily out of it, smiling along when people talk about him, even nodding affably as Quinn verbally rips him to shreds.  Fitz is the eldest of the quartet, bald, desiccated, and beyond their reach.  His speech to Penelope, starting out halting and embarrassing, is the moment the play turns from farce to something truly beautiful.  It is the moment of awe, when Fitz’s pauses and half sentences suddenly congeal into a limpid river of beautiful imagery, longing and love.  He casts himself in fine relief – against a backdrop of loneliness and shadow – and builds a tiny world in his mind’s eye where love can exist in the absence of everything, and then inviting her in, to live there, and be in a spirit of true love.  An unbelievable feat of storytelling – from fumbling to the fantastic – and it moves her.  Literally, for Penelope stands, turning and putting her hands on the glass wall in front of her to gaze down upon Fitz.  It is a stirring moment – as she shifts from profile to face the audience, baring her breathtaking beauty upon us for the first time.  She is perfect (in an admittedly undemanding role), played with perfectly placid and languid grace by Olga Wehrly.

Quinn’s monologs are directed primarily at his fellow suitors – diatribes of spleen and speeches to trick them – and one chilling prophesy straight out of mythology (but, oddly, not out of the Odyssey).  When his turn comes to declaim to Penelope…well, I can’t tell you what happens next.  You really have to see it to believe what he does to win her heart.  And, of course, Dunne will have his turn, too.

The plot’s not really the thing, though.  It’s this incredible interaction and competition among the males – the alphas all fighting for dominance. Even Fitz, in his affable way, owns the abuse that comes at him, turning it into an irrelevance and letting his words and imagination do his fighting.  It is about men, telling stories to woo women, to seduce, to banish the dark, to set themselves in relief against something, to find meaning.  It is that constant impulse we all have to talk, to fill the time between now and death, to weave plots and gain and hold the attention – if fleeting – of a beautiful woman.

After the play, I was lucky enough to meet Walsh at the fine opening night reception. He was shy and self-effacing, and when I asked him if the play was about the impulse – the compulsion – for men to tell stories, he looked puzzled.  “No,” he said, “it’s about death.  It’s all about death and how we try to escape it.” He explained about the characters only being able to imagine themselves outside of reality, and said that ultimately it’s about anxiety, and the fear of death.

I didn’t know what to say about that.  Obviously, he knows what he meant.  But it meant something else to me, and I’m not sure how to bridge that gap.  We tell stories to pass the time, to hide from death, to banish the thought, or to own it, or to make little of it so that we can go about our days.  I still have not fully resolved how these two trains of thought fit neatly together.

I bought the play while there, and I will read it.  I am even going to try to go back and see it again.  There is really no finer praise that I can give a play than to say, I cannot wait to read it, and then to see it again.