Penelope examines masculinity, aging, and dickheads
You could say that Enda Walsh’s Penelope is about men. More specifically, you could say that it’s about how men are ruthless, competitive shits. It’s also about aging. Actor Alex Lazaridis Ferguson, who’s playing Quinn, the most stereotypically masculine character, in the upcoming Rumble Theatre and Cultch coproduction, doesn’t buy into masculine stereotypes. But, at 50, he does know what it’s like when your body starts to fall apart.
In the play, which Ferguson describes as “a rare script”, Walsh offers a Samuel Beckett–like take on Homer’s Odyssey. Odysseus has been off adventuring for decades and Penelope’s four surviving suitors continue to woo her from the bottom of a dry swimming pool. Penelope observes them via closed-circuit TV.
The suitors define themselves as combatants. As Quinn says: “We eat life!…Each person we meet is there to be beaten down and knocked into place.…Friendships are there to be used, love is a fucking weapon.”
As he talks with the Straight in the lounge at the Progress Lab, where he’s rehearsing, Ferguson says that he’s familiar with men like this. “You could transfer these four characters to an investment bank or they could be stockbrokers,” he says. “You could put them in [the real-estate world of David Mamet’s] Glengarry Glen Ross and they wouldn’t be out of place. And yeah, they are dickheads, absolutely.”
Ferguson has experienced that dickheadedness in his own professional life, including in academia: he teaches at Capilano University. “It stuns me sometimes,” he says, “how intensely competitive and egotistical academia can be.” But he points out that it’s not just the men who are duking it out.
Asked if he thinks that men and women are significantly different, he wavers before he lands. “Hoo… I think I’d have to say yes,” he begins. “But then you start digging away at it and I don’t know. How far can we really push the idea of stable categories?”
He goes on: “The thing that interests me about a character like Quinn and the competition is that there’s a connection to a kind of lizard brain, our animalistic part. And I don’t see that as male, exactly. I just see it as something we go to the theatre to exercise: the fight-or-flight response, the kill-or-be-killed response, the status.”
Penelope’s examination of aging, and the accompanying weariness, also hits home. The character Fitz, who is in his mid 60s, is the oldest of the survivors. After observing “The mind is a bucket of eels, lads!” Fitz adds, “And yet for all that there’s still a lot of pluses to senility as it’s such a huge effort to maintain the fight. Isn’t that right, boys?”
“I get what he’s talking about,” Ferguson says simply. “Don’t we all have times when we go, ‘It would be a lot easier to just check out now’? My two closest friends committed suicide within two years of each other. So I can recognize that desire to go.” Getting more specific about his life as an artist, he continues: “Paying the rent has been a lifelong situation for me.…We don’t own anything, we rent, and rents are crazy. The stress is huge for me right now, just trying to survive. And I’m not really built for it.”
By putting its aging characters in Speedos, Penelope shines a ruthless light on the physical, as well as the psychological, insults of aging. Laughter ornaments Ferguson’s melancholy as he riffs on that theme: “I’m getting balder and balder all the time. And I’ve got a terrible head. It’s like a shoebox. It’s going to look fuckin’ awful. If I had the money, I’d get one of those operations. Implants. Oh fuck, yeah! But I don’t have the money and it’s painful, I hear.”
Fortunately, there’s art, including the artistry of Walsh’s Penelope.
Ferguson revels in the beauty of the play’s form. “I just love the language,” he explains, “the tempo, the rhythm. The rehearsal process is just all about figuring out the music of the text. So, for an actor, it’s fab.”
And, within that beauty, lies—perhaps not rejuvenation, but the possibility of renewal. Ferguson says that, in The Transformative Power of Performance: A New Aesthetics, author Erika Fischer-Lichte talks about art’s capacity to lead to a re-enchantment with the world. Ferguson shares that, on rare occasions in the theatre, he experiences a refreshed capacity for wonder—sometimes through a performer’s presence, sometimes through a scenographic moment: “I feel that the world is renewed. And it can happen in a dark play. It’s not like it’s got to be in happy pieces, or anything like that. It can happen in any kind of work. But something goes click for me, and I go, ‘Ah, yes!’ And I almost want to turn to the person next to me and say, ‘I love you.’ ”