All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Enda Walsh’s comedy, “Penelope,” is such a play. Like the work it recalls without totally resembling, Samuel Beckett’s “Waiting for Godot,” Walsh’s depiction of men occupying themselves or philosophizing while waiting for a momentous event to occur, can be uproariously funny and tangentially deep or be soporifically leaden and sink like the proverbial stone.
Tom Reing’s production for Philadelphia’s Inis Nua Theatre Company falls, alas, in the latter camp. It fails to engage or signal Walsh’s intent so badly in the first 75 of its 100 minutes, this “Penelope” cannot be redeemed even when Leonard C. Haas and Griffin Stanton-Ameisen make Reing’s audience stand to attention during two magnificent sequences as the production sunsets, as two of the characters reveal their innermost feelings and let you see there is substance to their souls and marrow in their bones.
Walsh’s characters need to be clowns of sort, but clowns with enough intensity that we remain interested in their plight.
These are four men who speak in what can be considered to be inanities, but when Walsh’s dialogue is read in print, rather than delivered by Reing’s cast, you glean the humor and logic in the language. You realize passages have themes and are revelatory. You can gauge the intelligence or class of the speakers. You can see how one gambit leads to another and how intrinsic in each sequence is a competitive spirit, a will to weaken to position of self-esteem of a rival or opponent. You see a story and exposition emerge, however raucously and indirectly. You see “Penelope” is a play, a cogent, funny play. A good play.
The same words that appear in Walsh’s script are recited on the Inis Nua stage, but they have no resonance or charm. They seem random and unrelated. There’s no thought about using Walsh’s playful bantering to entertain or cue the audience as to what might be going on and why these men are together in a long-drained swimming pool in some unannounced place. I, who usually prefer stylization to be used sparingly, long for some closer, more orchestrated staging in this production. Without, Walsh’s play goes tediously awry and seem devoid of even the most elemental rhyme or reason. It hangs there as mindless slapstick or worse, random shtick that doesn’t illuminate the setting, the people we’re watching, or what specifically is going on.
The only way you intuit the characters’ purpose is to think of the title of the play and attempt to link the jumble you hear to some coherent theme or events.
Walsh’s title in the better clue. The characters we see are the last four suitors standing from the thousands who have come to Ithaca to court the beauteous, virtuous, industrious, and unaging Penelope during the 20 years her husband, the great Greek general Odysseus has been absent from her side, at first to fight the Trojan War and then to take an adventurous journey home from it. (One of the characters actually reads Homer as he waits, one of Walsh’s jokes that is noted but has no effect in Reing’s production.) Yes, the Penelope who knits, purls, and rejects all who would replace the missing Odysseus as her partner in life.
The four men are as much remnants as the dry, empty pool they inhabit or the second-hand nature of the chairs they sit on, the tables they work at, the garish, mismatched clothes they wear, or the broken grill they can only cook on by using a modern portable blowtorch (all Walsh’s ideas by the way). Each of the quartet has outlived his youth and reliable usefulness. They may have warded less determined suitors off, killed or driven to suicide the weaker or less obdurate candidates, or outlasted other allegedly romantic contenders through sheer inertia or stubbornness, but they are, none of them, in a condition to set a woman’s heart aflutter, particularly the faithful and uninterested Penelope’s..
By the time we meet the suitors, they are as exhausted, dispirited, and bloated as Didi or Gogo and as much in a predictable daily routine of waking in their huts adjacent to Penelope’s rather American suburban-looking home, having their breakfast, and retiring in ugly bathing costumes to the broken-down pool to take their turn at a microphone that gives them the chance to engage Penelope’s attention as she watches them, like a viewer watching a mindless reality show, on a closed-circuit television, the cameras for which are aimed at the pool.
Before we even know how Penelope will enter the play, we see the television monitor through a large sliding patio door that leads to her house. We also see the mike and notice the cameras. At first, they seem extraneous, random detritus among the other junk prop genius Annie Heath placed in the pool, or just plain anachronistic, but Walsh has a way of employing everything he’s asked a prop person to acquire, and anachronism is a staple part of the package.
The four men must mark time until they get to the meat of their reason for being assembled as a group in Penelope’s pool. Walsh has set up their dialogue as a kind of vaudeville. It’s absurd and disjointed, but it works as a construct for a play. Reading “Penelope,” the lines fall into place. You laugh out loud. The relationship and necessary theatrical style is clear. The script is rather exhilarating.
In my experience, a live production trumps reading every time. A director and actors envision things the reader may never imagine. They create rhythms and clarify passages and give life and voice to dry print that may not even suggest a tone or be little more than an exercise in storytelling.
In the case of Inis Nua’s “Penelope,” reading Walsh was preferable.
Walsh’s writing is precise. You see where it leads. You hear the way lines need to be spoken, as if they were written in iambic pentameter or some other meter that scans felicitously and indicates emphases and rhythms. You see the shadings of “Godot” or other plays where characters must do something to keep from fading into oblivion while they wait, rather than seek, for something miraculous to happen and change their repetitious fortune.
Penelope’s four suitors are more absurd than Beckett’s characters. They have higher sensibilities. They have trained for and been something in their lives. They are not seeking a modicum of security or hope in a wasteland. They are creatures fresh from the advanced civilization of their time to have chosen, against all odds, to pursue the love of a woman who feeds them and gives them a place to stay but, in general, ignores them, discourages them, and leaves them to rot bodily and intellectually in their benighted notion she would give any of these losers the time of day. Especially since she does not age, and the men in her pool are disheveled shadows of the robust wooers who arrived 20 years ago in the height of their handsomeness, prowess, wealth, and lust. By now they are to Odysseus as Hyperion to a satyr and are worthless mugs who have been out of circulation for so long, they have no inkling of what they could do or how they’d survive in the wide, wide, genuine world.
Walsh shows this delusion. He also shows the patterns of rivalry and the ways the men are schooled on how to get on each other’s nerves and touch the exact button that will trigger enmity or sarcasm. Even the character who has become content to serve the others, and who actually made amicable headway with one of the now-deceased suitors, acts more from loathing and contempt than from filial loyalty or a disposition to be helpful.
We need to see this comedy for what it is, a jab at unproductive competition and questionable sincerity. We need to understand the ludicrousness that these men have wrought by giving up everything to pine for Penelope, who is about as attracted to them as she might be to a leper.
We don’t see it. There is no rapport or byplay as Didi establishes with Gogo or Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz has with Guildenstern. Reing and his cast seem incapable of delivering the characters’ repartee in any way that would grab our imagination and let us delight in its farcical incongruity as we figure why we’re watching these characters at all. They don’t even spar, insult, bait, finagle, or retort with any conviction or design to entertain.
Dullness ensues. You feel that Walsh has supplied his actors with verbal gobbledegook that can’t be presented in a reasonable or amusing manner.
All falls flat. Even some routines, like one character keeping a sausage he’s grilled by blowtorch, the last sausage in the men’s collective larder, to himself while teasing one of the others he may offer him a bite, a gambit that should spark some dell’arte flare, plummets into stodgy drivel and plays as a lame attempt at comedy rather than a successful example of it. A simple sight gag, such a one character, after stressing his masculinity, makes a colorful drink for himself, the glass festooned with umbrellas and revealing maraschino cherries — a Shirley Temple albeit with hard stuff — has no effect because so little attention is directed towards it.
You being to feel bad for Reing’s cast as nothing they venture yields any significant theatrical results, let alone laughs. They can dress in costume, make dramatic declarations, talk about mourning the one human they felt warm towards in 20 years, and discuss their various stations in their former lives. It all remains weighty, ponderous, and without entertainment value.
In the long run, only sincerity works. Leonard C. Haas’s character, Fitz, the most sympathetic because he seems the most civilized and cultured (and Haas is the only cast member who looks decent in his bathing togs), instead of making a gratuitous and bombastic appeal to Penelope, gives up on all sense of pretense or strategy and speaks from his heart. Events of the day have made Fitz thoughtful, including intimations of his particular mortality, and he loses his train of thought in a poetic way that leads him to speaking of his regard for Penelope and the deeper, more profound thoughts he has about life and existence and the need to be regarded and recognized and to give the best of himself to someone.
The Inis Nua audience is moved. You can sense collapsed antennae being raised as Haas changes the entire tone of the Prince Music Theater black box where “Penelope” is staged. No one was able to handle Walsh’s gamesmanship, but Haas give clear and affecting voice to his higher sentiments. Fitz emerges as a man of feeling, of purpose. He shows his soul is not empty as the pool. On the contrary. It may be as expansive. Haas is arresting in these moments. When they arrive, you think, “Much better but too late,” yet the actor impresses, and the audience gets to see why Walsh is considered to be among the finest of Ireland’s current crop of playwrights.
Comedy proved elusive to Reing’s ensemble, but earnestness of the kind Haas’s Fitz displays registers fully and intensely.
Penelope, watching idly in her den, with an attitude of stultifying ennui, sits up and stares at her television monitor. She is so moved by Fitz’s sincerity, she comes to the sliding patio doors and watches him from above. Fitz is so immersed in his confession of love and profession of higher ideals, he doesn’t notice Penelope’s interest. His rivals do, but he doesn’t. Remaining competitive and believing they are about to lose Penelope to Fitz, they interrupt his epiphany. One tries to commandeer Fitz’s mike and make his own plea to Penelope. One pair takes to grappling, and Fitz ends up settling their dispute, which has become violently physical, by taking a dramatic step that will confuse and horrify Penelope just as she is approaching the perimeter of the pool to take a closer look at him. The last half hour of Reing’s production seems poised to fulfill promise its first hour and change squandered. “Seems” unfortunately becomes the operative word. Yet, more of quality is ahead.
Toward the end of Walsh’s piece, Griffin Stanton-Ameisen repeats Haas’s brand of triumph. His character, Bonds, appeals directly to Penelope, who stands yet above the pool surveying its inhabitants and the carnage they have wrought. Stanton-Ameisen launches into a speech as eloquent and moving at Haas’s. The actor hits all the right notes as he bares his heart and talks about friendship and losing friends and betrayal while talking about how pure he is in his affection, respect, and desire for Penelope. As Fitz did before, Burns speaks of all he sacrificed, including vestiges of his own humanity but of how redemptive love would be, Penelope’s love. The four suitors, after all, have yearned for Penelope or some semblance of romantic life as long and, perhaps, as ardently as she has waited for Odysseus. It may be the human lot to wait for the validation that comes with true love, of the kind about which Fitz and Burns speak just as you’re convinced the men are still on Penelope’s property out of habit rather than fervor that faded decades before.
“Penelope” is a fine play. The Inis Nua production does not do it or its author justice. There seems to be no comprehension, not even a hint, that Reing and company understood Walsh’s style or how to present it palatably, let alone amusingly or enlighteningly to an audience. My hope is Enda Walsh, who always has his Tony-winning book for the musical, “Once,” to show people who might doubt his mettle, is not dismissed by theatergoers who are disappointed in Inis Nua. “Penelope” has a lot of entertainment to offer when does with attention to it rhythms and the style of clowning needed to make it the most effective.
Leonard C. Haas at least keeps you interested in Fitz, who spends much of the first act trying to read but also in expressing his sense of superiority over the other suitors and in joining them in verbal sparring and turning Stanton-Ameisen’s Burns into a servant.
Haas conveys dignity that gives his character status. While he parries as sarcastically and viciously as any of the men, he seems above the fray and more inclined to defend his standing as a gentleman than to wound his rivals, physically or psychologically. It comes as no surprise that if any character will break through to capture the audience’s ear, Fitz will be the one. Haas makes Fitz’s honesty astounding and touching. In a production that can only claim random moments of excellence, Haas provides the most important and poignant.
Griffin Stanton-Ameisen piques your curiosity when the lights come up, and he, as Burns, is scrubbing what is obviously blood off the back tile of the pool, stage left. You hope to learn what he’s doing, but that comes later. Stanton-Ameisen at least has the actor’s sense to look at the blood stain periodically so you at least know it disturbs Burns.
Because of his costume and overgrown and unkempt hair and beard, Stanton-Ameisen’s Burns attracts attention when Reing’s production is dragging. You watch Burns as he makes drinks and sandwiches or goes about chores. None of these actions become more than something to occupy you while you wait for something substantive, but Burns’s character, in some ways the least defined, frequently becomes your focus.
Jared Michael Delaney finds the largeness in his character, Quinn, but he doesn’t show the person behind the bombast. Quinn comes across like a loutish bully, but he is the character with the most advanced sense of play and fun. He is a ringmaster of sorts, but Delaney and Reing do not make this clear.
Quinn initiates a lot of the action and often guides the characters’ conversation. Delaney is not pointed enough to take Quinn from being irritating and self-centered to being one who thinks his ideas about dressing up and doing things with a flourish will win Penelope. The showman is missing from Delaney’s performance. So is the comic. You may not like Quinn, but you should be amused as his oafish bad taste and not appalled at his boorish and troublemaking pomposity.
John Morrison conveys the benightedness of his character, Dunne, who thinks his fellow suitors should abandon their hopes at this late stage to rally about his. Morrison’s performance is too straightforward to be comic or to show what a blind, egotistic fool Dunne is. He makes Dunne unlikeable, which is justified, but he doesn’t show how pathetic he is or that his pride, confidence, and sense of entitlement is way out of proportion to his place among Penelope’s suitors.
Delaney and Morrison also have long speeches that denote their characters’ emotions and designs, but they do not have the effect or riveting quality Haas’s and Stanton-Ameisen’s do.
Adair Archero is a darling Penelope. She expresses the heroine’s boredom with the men adding to the clutter and unnecessary debris in her pool. She also conveys Penelope’s youth, beauty, and allure. Although Archero does not speak, you read Penelope’s thoughts in her eyes and posture. You can tell she is moved by Fitz’s words, uncomprehending about Quinn’s stabbing, and impressed to the point of genuine tears at Burns’s regrets and longings. Best of all is her excited, anticipatory look towards the harbor when she realized Odysseus is approaching.
“Penelope” should end with a big laugh that is tinged with horror as a prophecy revealed during the play comes to fruition, just as it was dreamed by all four of the suitors on the same night. (Walsh, you see, has a sense of the classical and epic and the wit to know how to include it.) Because Reing’s cast was not careful to make the passage in which the dreams are revealed stand out in any significant way, Walsh’s grace note is spoiled. Somehow, that seems fitting.
Meghan Jones gets the highest marks of anyone, Haas and Stanton-Ameisen, included for her remarkable set that becomes a source of curiosity and amusement even before “Penelope” begins. Objects from every period are found. The furniture in the pool looks like a collection one might find in the storage area of a house in which no longer used stuff has been accumulating for decades.
Maggie Baker may have gone overboard with the costumes. They are supposed to be swimwear and fairly unfashionable or unsuitable for their wearers, but Baker’s choices overplay the joke Walsh is perpetrating in his descriptions.
The opposite is true of sound designer Nick Kourtides who took all of Walsh’s song cues and blended them meticulously. Oh, if the cast had had more of a sense of abandon or synchronization when dancing to “The Spanish Flea” or other Herb Alpert hits.
Kudos to video designer Janelle A. Kauffman for her excellent work and to fight choreographer J. Alex Cordaro for his realistic and occasionally funny fisticuffs and attacks. Shon Causer kept the pool sunbathed.
“Penelope,” produced by Inis Nua Theatre Company, runs through Sunday, April 26, at the Prince Music Theater, 1412 Chestnut Street, in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 7 p.m. Monday, Wednesday, and Thursday, 8 p.m. Friday and Saturday, and 2 p.m. Sunday. Tickets are $30 to $25 and can be obtained by calling 215-454-9776 or by visiting www.inisnuatheatre.org.