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Penelope
THEATER REVIEW
by Mary Shen Barnidge
2011-12-21

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Playwright: Enda Walsh. At: Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted St. Phone: 312-335-1650;$20-$78. Runs through: Feb. 5

The chronicles of Homer recount how, while Odysseus was off fighting the Trojan wars, his wife, Penelope, was beset by, literally, hundreds of suitors looking to court the attractive, wealthy—and presumed widowed—matron. Though curious at their dogged pursuit, she evaded them by various stratagems, certain that her husband would return. He did, 20 long years later, to kill the would-be usurpers and reunite with his faithful spouse.

Irish playwright Enda Walsh channels Samuel Beckett in his take on the ancient myth, his portrait of the last few bird-dogging bachelors revealing them encamped on Penelope's backyard patio at the bottom of the now-dry swimming pool—sparser of hair and muscle tone in their scanty Speedo trunks and beach robes, but still stubbornly focused on their competition for the mistress of the house's favors.

If this were the sole substance of Walsh's play, what we'd have is a four-handed Waiting For Godot, or perhaps a Prison-Without-Bars play, its action centered on a carefully-selected cross-section of men, stranded with no occupation but to pass the time. Oh, but when an omen warns them that Odysseus is on his way home, they are spurred to action, each making one last desperate bid for Mrs. O.'s affections. The blustery Dunne woos her with Yeatsian poetry, the bookish Fitz bares his intimate thoughts to her, the swaggering Quinn schemes to eliminate his rivals and the meek Burns declares the simple act of love to be its own justification. We finish with one man dead (under enigmatic circumstances) and his companions resigned to their fates.

Steppenwolf's playbill offers some ideas (for those of scholarly bent) as to the author's meaning—something likely to elude audiences after only a single viewing, since what commands our initial attention is Walsh's florid wordplay, along with the quartet of AARP pin-ups (at least three of whom have done the full-monty for Chicago playgoers in their Halcyon days) composed of Scott Jaeck, Tracy Letts, Yasen Peyankov and Ian Barford. Their aged beefcake physiques are thrown into sharp focus by Logan Vaughn's glamorous and silent Penelope, in much the same way as their characters' ambitions are granted urgency by the stacks of empty lawn-chairs attesting to those who abandoned the chase. Are our stubborn heroes foolish or steadfast in their devotion? Who can say, in the end, what constitutes a wasted life?


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