Four middle-aged men stand in the bottom of a giant pool baring their souls (and their bodies) in a desperate attempt to win the affections of an etherial figure who watches from her plasma TV above, as if the sad display below were some sort of competitive reality TV show. If they fail in meeting their goal, the men will certainly face a gruesome fate at the hands of her returning lover — they know this because they’ve each seen it in a prophetic dream involving a smoldering barbecue.
What the heck is this? It’s Penelope — a curious new play by Irish playwright Edna Walsh that takes “an oblique angle on the story of Odysseus,” as Steppenwolf Artistic Director Martha Lavey explains in the show program. “Where ‘The Odyssey’ focuses on the story of the hero, Penelope concentrates on the minor players of the epic.”
In short, Walsh focuses on Odysseus’ return home: a 10-year journey following an equally long battle in Troy, and these “minor players,” as Lavey mentions, attempt to usurp Odysseus’ throne while he’s away by seducing his wife Penelope. But that Penelope is a hard woman to please.
In this unique modern retelling, Walsh presents us with the most pathetic quartet of Speedo-clad creatures you’ve ever met. The result is highly absurd comedy mixed with uncomfortable moments and flashes of sad humanity. Despite the 95-minute running time, there are moments when the thing overstays its welcome, but watching these four finely tuned actors (Ian Barford, Scott Jaeck, Tracy Letts and Yasen Peyankov) work so seamlessly together as an ensemble (the venerable Amy Morton is the show’s director) reminds us why we love Steppenwolf. And where else would you see a Pulitzer Prize winner (Letts, who won the prestigious award in 2008 for his play August: Osage County) wear the equivalent of water-friendly underwear in public?
“Penelope” plays through February 5, 2012 at Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre. More info here >