By Chuck Graham, TucsonStage.com
photo by Tim Fuller
From left, Joseph McGrath as Fitz, Ryan Parker Knox as Dunne, Matt Bowdren as Quinn and, center top, Grace Kirkpatrick as Penelope
Everything is a metaphor in the Rogue Theatre's mind-stretching new production “Penelope” by Irish playwright Enda Walsh. It takes awhile to get the drift of it, but you will come away feeling smarter.
Walsh's play is an exercise in absurdist theater. A 90-minute study of macho maneuvering loosely based upon the quandary in Ulysses' mythology when many men pursued Penelope, the wife of Ulysses, while she faithfully waited 20 years for his return from war.
True to the absurdist code, everything on stage could mean something else – or maybe nothing at all, such as having his play take place in the deep end of an empty swimming pool decked out with tattered aluminum lounge chairs, a large barbecue, many bottles of whiskey, some exercise equipment and a radio that only plays “Spanish Flea” by Herb Alpert.
Still...pointless decadence could not be more deftly implied.
There is no plot to speak of in “Penelope,” and lots of moments seem to be nothing but long strings of non sequitur nonsense. Think of it as something of a cross between “Waiting For Godot” and “Alice in Wonderland.”
But here's the thing, not having to follow a plot, figure out who-dun-it, watch out for red herring, or wonder if the end justifies the means can be a very freeing experience.
As one person has anonymously observed, “Abstract art can mean anything you need it to mean. Abstract art will never let you down.”
Clearly, this exceptionally precise production directed with touching empathy by Christopher Johnson is a long way from Thornton Wilder's “Our Town.”
For sure, “Penelope” doesn't go down easy. It is full of chaos and quirk. As well as philosophy about the meaning of life, along with questions about the nutritional value of being true to oneself.
Lovers of conventional productions may not be convinced, but attendance is mandatory for everyone who complains that Tucson theater companies play it too safe.
More easily appreciated is Walsh's language, wondrously rich and giddy with an emotional recklessness that will take your breath away. Imagine abstract paintings full of vivid colors.
The play's structure begins with four men of varying ages and temperaments, staying in the empty pool to compete for the attention of Penelope (Grace Kirkpatrick). She never speaks but is often seen looking down on them from the top edge of the pool.
The man that she picks will be saved from certain death, at least until Ulysses gets back. The four have been at this competition for awhile, and their urgency is rising. for Ulysses could return at any minute.
In true ensemble style, each of the actors catches a different shade of desperation. Matt Bowdren looking quite fit in his bright red Speedo is Quinn, the athlete. Ryan Parker Knox is Dunne, making the biggest splash with his over-the-top dedication to excess.
Hoping his superior intellect will be the winning weapon is Joseph McGrath as Fitz, reading a paperback edition of something by Homer while the others waste their energy showing off.
But the sleeper is young Eric Du as Burns, who spends most of the play acting subservient to the others. Through the course of play, each of the men gives a go-for-broke speech to get Penelope's attention. With fatal arrogance they push Burns' speech to the end of the line.
And then, just like it says in the Holy Bible, “The last will be first.”
“Penelope” continues through March 19 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, at The Rogue Theatre, 300 E. University Blvd. Also Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. March 11 and 19
Tickets are $35; student rush $15, begins 15 minutes before curtain, when available. For details and reservations, 551-2053, or visit theroguetheatre.org