Wednesday, January 25, 2012

Penelope Hits a Homer

"Walsh's play is one of those verbose, word-drunk, overstuffed shows, confounding as it can be, that fills your brain with so many ideas you can't think of much else thereafter."

Two years ago I saw a play at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater called "The Walworth Farce". In the first few minutes I thought I was observing a train wreck. Once the central conceit of the play revealed itself it became one of the most interesting, thought provoking, remarkable staging of a play I had ever seen. The actor's were maniacally talented, the themes of the play universal - to this day it ricochets around in my head as a unique stew of the sacred and profane. Think James Joyce meets the Marx brothers.

I soon saw another play by the playwright, an Irish gent named Enda Walsh. This play, "The New Electric Ballroom" was just as weird, the acting superb, but was not as engaging as The Walworth Farce". Still, as a near miss, it was infinitely more interesting than many successful plays.

Last night I saw the latest play by Walsh, "Penelope", at Steppenwolf in Chicago. I was interested to see if it was fantastic like Walworth, or merely interesting like Ballroom. The central idea, that four aging men in Speedos spend years living in the bottom of an empty swimming pool trying win the affections of Penelope, would suggest a large probability that it would be simply weird. 

It peeled the top of my skull backwards. 

Everybody has different tastes and sensibilities, but for me this was a work of genius. It takes a passage from the Odyssey, of Penelope being besieged by desperate suitors as she waits for Odysseus to return, and spins it into a hallucinatory revery on the nature of men engaged in the eternal battle between good and evil, between selfishness and love - staged as a mashup between Homer and Neitzche and the Three Stooges participating in Survivor.

It is only in Chicago for a couple of more weeks so I hope you can find a way to see it. It is simply remarkable, my favorite play of the year in a city whose theater scene is a surfeit of riches.

Read more:     Penelope    Chicago Tribune
Read more:     Penelope    Chicago Now