BWW Reviews: How does Rogue Machine Solve a Dilemma Named Penelope?
Can just imagine the excitement going through the minds of the four actors when they realized they would get the chance to work with a Tony Award winner's script and be directed by a multi-award winning director in its Los Angeles premiere. Penelope's playwright Enda Walsh won the 2012 Tony Award for "Best Book of a Musical" for Once. Penelope's director, Rogue Machine's founding Artistic Director John Perrin Flynn, received the LA Weekly Career Achievement Award, also in 2012. Kudos to these brave actors (Ron Bottitta, Richard Fancy, Brian Letscher, Scott Sheldon) for their unbridled and completely vanity-free commitment to Penelope's word-intensive script.
Basic plot of Penelope focuses on the surviving four (out of the original hundred) vying for the affections/attention of the titular character Penelope (wordlessness limned by Holly Fulger). Think Hunger Games competition (without any qualifying criteria of the contest).
Residing, for years now, in the waterless pool below Penelope's balcony, these four men (intentionally costumed unflatteringly by Lauren Tyler in swim trunks and robes) strut, banter, connive, humiliate, and confuse as the final round suitors for Penelope's hand. If one of them does not succeed to wooing her; her husband, soon to return home from battle, will kill them all.
Great detailed, empty pool set by Stephanie Kerley Schwartz appropriately creates the atmosphere of a surreal survival living space. Welcomed video and life-action camera close-ups of the finalists by Corwin Evans project on Penelope's balcony curtains.
Difficult to determine the intended tone of this piece, which veers from all-solemnity to absurdity to somberness to slapstick to seriousness. Tone's almost as inconsistent as the actors' collective Irish accents. Perhaps, the over-the-top spurting blood effects and demolishing props don't meld well with straight dramatics. Possibly, the full 95-minute performance could be framed as taking place in a mental ward (i.e., Marat/Sade), then entirely presented as theatre of the absurd. Certainly, Letscher's quick changes (underscored by a cheesy 70's game show theme) from Napoleon to Josephine to Rhett Butler to Juliet and, finally, to a dying Romeo would feel more organic in an asylum setting. Surely, the four realistically imperfect human specimen presented to the audience as the victorious 'final four' would make more sense. Hard to buy into the conceit that these four beat out the other unseen 96 suitors. What methods did they use to trounce them? Dramatic monologues from Letscher and Sheldon work best as stand-alone speeches.
Walsh's script does succeed in renewing the hope of the common man-that someone without any outstanding physical features, youthful vitality, or a modicum of appealing charm might still has a chance of seducing the girl of their dreams. As is, this theatre piece wouldn't thread water in Penelope's pool even if it were filled with water.