BWW Reviews: PENELOPE - One Moment for the Barbecue
Fat men in speedos. Go on – you want to see it now. Seriously – I can probably end the review right there and save 1000 words of your time...and yet here we are. Pressing on.
PENELOPE appealed to me in a lot of ways. It was one of those rare productions where I wasn’t bothered by much, or not bothered by enough to suspend my suspension of disbelief. I say that from three rows away from fat men in speedos - you’ll recall - and so there was clearly a lot going right. It was entertainment. It was active. It was borderline messy, but the actors handled their banter well. PENELOPE is as pure as re-imagination can be, turning our perception of The Odyssey on its side and letting us glimpse a concentrated sliver of its entirety. It retains, it reinvents. PENELOPE is poignant when it must be and mirthful throughout, you will enjoy it immensely if you see it.
That being said (perhaps I should simply start calling my reviews ‘that being said’), it is a guy’s play. It is a bloke’s play. Not to suggest that the female audience members cannot access whatever is to be derived from this production (indeed the talk-back session afterwards seemed to suggest that only women felt confident enough to speak to an interpretation of the play), what I mean is that the narrative was entirely about the embodiments of juxtaposing masculine philosophies being eternally incapable of accessing that which triggers the feminine soul. Each competing suitor is essentially a caricature of male vanity, expressing itself through vulgar display and will therefore never attain that highest ‘prize’ of the woman’s attention. The lady doesn’t have a lot of lines, is what I’m trying to say. It works, don’t get me wrong, there’s something immensely alluring about the ‘silent woman’ (stop it, that’s not sexist), but at the same time it is 90 straight minutes of four guys talking. All sweaty. In speedos. Lot of man on that stage.
Which leads me to the other bit worth mentioning that may swing with you or it may not. This clash of the philosophy majors, as it were. PENELOPE does not have a plot-driven narrative, in the sense that we aren’t necessarily presented with events that strongly guide us from A to Z. Instead, the story moves along with each character being given the opportunity for a psychological awakening, either fulfilling it or not, and then descending back into the chaos of the pool. Do you see the difference? I'm sure you do, but in case you don't, consider this: in a Michael Bay film, a forest will somehow explode, which will progress the action because the event itself is a unit of action. Contrast that with PENELOPE, where an internal reveal allows the story to continue. Two events that shape story, yet fundamentally different in nature.
I got a chance to catch up with director Philip Cuomo for a brief chat after the show and I asked him about this different flow of movement in storytelling (I know I ask boring questions, hush). Mr. Cuomo explained his emphasizing ‘moments’ in the play, both those that are inherently tied to the script and also using those ‘moments’ as motivation for his actors. Though the story isn’t action-driven, it is still meticulously crafted, to the extent that one could get out a stopwatch and predict the coming of a comedy-moment or a drama-moment, and each lengthy monologue that marks a psychological reveal is a precisely marked event of forward momentum in the overarching play itself. These moments, Cuomo said, are written to feel spontaneous, but lead into one another so perfectly that it cultivates a semblance of movement for the audience. The same applies to the actors. Cuomo said that he encouraged the four men to solely occupy ‘the moment’ and negotiate their awareness of status at all times. Were they losing NOW? Were they winning NOW? The power hierarchy fluxuates so often that by drawing out character through the dynamics of status conflict, more movement and more intensity is given to the narrative, engaging us as an audience.
The last tidbit I can tell you is that the actors do a fantastic job of saving some areas of the script that are lacking. Fast-paced, witty banter is difficult when it’s unconvincing and there were definitely dialogue sequences that risked being just that. However, Third Rail is known for its talent, specifically in its actors, and that talent shone through. The chemistry was fantastic and the performances wonderful. You will laugh. Oh, you will laugh. And when it comes time for each man to have his lengthy say, finally revealing the nature of his heart, everything goes right. Everything comes together and you cannot tear your ears nor eyes away. Also (speaking of eyes), enjoy the set designers playing with levels in the space. Conveying meaning through spacial opportunity? Ten thousand points to you, sirs.
SPOILER PARAGRAPH! IF YOU HAVE NOT SEEN THE PLAY YET THEN YOU HAVE READ ENOUGH!
Sorry, I’ll finish after this and I won’t drag on, but I do have to question what appears to be the popular reading of the story’s end. As I mentioned, there is a talk-back after the show hosted by the producer (perhaps? Company manager? A woman who was charming, anyway), and the question was raised, “was love saved in the end?” to which everyone seemed to agree, “yes”. But hold on a minute.
PENELOPE is successful because it assumes our familiarity with The Odyssey, specifically the grizzly end of the suitors in the house of Odysseus. No matter what happens, no matter how many liberties are taken with the narrative, it is an axiomatic truth that the suitors will fail to woo Penelope and Odysseus will stab everybody with a spear a lot, until most (if not all) parts of them are dead. We may get caught up in desperately hoping that someone convinces Penelope to come down from her ivory tower and save those characters we have grown somewhat attached to, but truthfully we know (we always know) exactly what fate shall befall the suitors. So assuming that the ‘love worth saving’ is the love between Odysseus and Penelope, the TRUE love (and ignoring it being an ancient civilization’s melodramatic blurring of monogamy and property rights), then it is inappropriate to say that ‘love was saved’. Love was never at risk. Love, at the absolute farthest one might stretch, was allowed to continue unabated.
No, it is the men who are saved, if only minutely. The redemption of the three remaining suitors as they kill the truly evil fourth is a final act of poetic justice after a 20-year course of vulgarity and base existence, and so we forgive them…a little.
Anyway, I hope my old high school psychology teacher reads this, I saw him in the audience and he gave me a D in my junior year. People don’t forget, Edmundson!
PENELOPE runs through June 17th at the Winningstad Theatre. Ticket prices vary, for more information, follow the link below:
Photo credit: Owen Carey