Rumble Theatre’s Penelope goes in and out of focus
By Enda Walsh. Directed by Stephen Drover. Presented by the Cultch and Rumble Theatre. At the Cultch’s Historic Theatre on Thursday, September 26. Continues until October 13
Like a wonkily projected movie, Rumble Theatre’s production of Penelope goes in and out of focus.
Irish playwright Enda Walsh’s script riffs on Homer’s Odyssey. For 20 years, Penelope has been waiting for Odysseus to return from his adventures, and Penelope’s suitors have been hoping that he won’t. Walsh introduces us to the last four romantic wannabes, who spend their days in the bottom of Penelope’s dry, baking-hot swimming pool, waiting for the moment that she will turn her closed-circuit-TV camera on them and they can pitch their woo.
These guys are macho assholes. As Quinn, the most competitive, says, “friendships are there to be used, love is a fucking weapon.” But Burns, the youngest, has started to believe that trust is possible among men. And when all four realize that Odysseus will soon return and slaughter them, if somebody doesn’t marry Penelope first, old Fitz and bombastic Dunne start to explore the unfamiliar terrain of honesty.
Despite the play’s classical—and implicitly timeless—setting, it’s hard to credit the notion of essential masculinity. But the script’s examination of aging is touching. When Quinn refers to “the sausage of our youth”, the image isn’t just about sexual decline. Fitz longs for the relief of senescence: “It’s such a huge effort to maintain the fight. Isn’t that right, boys?” And faced with their imminent deaths, the competitors long to construct meaning and connection out of failure and nothingness.
Walsh applies an absurd spin to the characters’ existential pickle. When Dunne bombs in his final, self-dramatizing pitch to Penelope, Burns expresses his displeasure with the sarcastic actor’s putdown “Love your work.”
But I laughed more when I read the script than when I saw it performed. I suspect this has to do with director Stephen Drover’s inconsistent commitment to the script’s comic energy. Sometimes, the electricity is there and the comedy works. The realization that Odysseus will soon return and fillet the suitors throws them into a passage of glorious panic. In this chunk, Sean Devine, who’s playing Dunne, writhes in his chair, desperately trying to justify his fear of, among other things, autumn. And Devine leans into Dunne’s poncy physicality; at times, he’s so enamoured of himself you expect him to burst into interpretive dance. But there’s little comic pleasure in Alex Ferguson’s Quinn.
The script indicates that Quinn is lusciously narcissistic—he describes himself as a “sensuous Ninja”—but Ferguson plays him pretty much on one, hard-nosed note. Drover also misses a major opportunity for bravura theatrics: a passage that the stage directions describe as “a very accomplished, quick-change cabaret routine” is slow and lacklustre.
Penelope isn’t only enthusiastically comic, of course. Patrick Keating nails an emotionally naked monologue, in which Fitz articulates his longing for love. And in the most consistently rewarding performance of the evening, Kyle Jespersen makes a skinless—and often hangdog funny—Burns.
Drew Facey’s swimming-pool set is gorgeously disgusting. And thanks partly to Lindsay Winch’s wordless but openhearted Penelope, the play’s ending is moving. Up to that point, it’s a bumpy ride.