Enda Walsh's 2010 play Penelope gives new meaning to "sausage fest," a crass phrase referring to a party at which single men outnumber the available women. But what the four male characters here have over your typical gaggle of guys who are fighting for the affections of one woman turns out to be a major advantage: poetry.
Continuing the tradition of Irish dramatists who are intoxicated by words and their interplay with one another, Walsh revels in exquisite wordsmithing. You could look no further than the speech given by the eldest and most well-read (or the only one who's well-read), Fitz, as he competes with three other dudes for the love of Penelope, even though it's understood by all that her husband, Odysseus, will soon return from his travels and slay them.
As played by R Bruce Elliot in Undermain Theatre's elegantly paced production, directed by Stan Wojewodski, Jr. and using the new Dallas City Performance Hall in a creative way, Fitz starts his speech out clumsily, and then settles into what has to be the most compelling monologue given by any performer on a local stage in memory. As he ponders this odd need of real people who are "shunted from scene to scene, packed with half-knowledge" to "experience things," he wonders:
How horrible that world is! But I'm in my house of nothing and high in the distance I can see those people on Earth 'living.' I look at them differently, without conscience, without pity, it means nothing to me because I am a world onto myself now. Here alone, a body, a house, an atmosphere, wonderfully indifferent, blissfully uncaring. ... When I think of my youth and what I have sold and what I have gathered and what I have lost and what I have gained and what little effect my youth has had on any existence! I am a blemish, Penelope! A tampering twit who's used life, tossed it aside, rolled it in my fingertips, placed it in an ashtray, pushed it down the back of the couch, flicked life across a tabletop..."
[You can listen to R Bruce Elliot doing the speech here]
Contrast that eloquent speech with the idea that all three men wear robes most of the time, and the other three—Dunne (Bruce DuBose), Quinn (Max Hartman) and Burns (Gregory Lush)—wear Speedos underneath, sometimes with robe open or all the way off. This as they hang out, bickering over grilled sausage and surviving on sandwiches, in a drained swimming pool at Penelope's (Miranda Parham) pad, with her lounging in the villa just above, waiting for her hero. Until then, she'll have to deal with the four suitors who are left from the hundred who were there (blood on the pool walls signals that they haven't made it this far) to prove that they are not zeroes.
Among those poetic speeches—the sensitive Burns gets one too, and the two most likely to engage in a cock fight, Dunne and Quinn, get their say too—Walsh uses such memorable language as "fraudulent follicker" as one is accused of having hair plugs. An as if the Speedos and pool toys didn't do the trick, whimsy is added via the music of Herb Alpert and the Tijuana Brass, notably "Spanish Flea," which you might recognize as the music when the bachelors were introduced on the 1970s game show The Dating Game.
Sadly, the fates won't be so kind to these bachelors. Penelope's a prize, for sure, but even if the guys were hidden behind a curtain, their answers to the questions asked in the game of life are enough to let us know that they're not worthy of her love. Fitz and Burns might be lucky to come away with a box of Rice-A-Roni as a consolation prize. To use another game show image, Dunne and Quinn deserve a Whammy.
The play is a genius spin on The Odyssey, a meditation on a fate we know too well, with insight into the idea that how we live life affects how we fare on the battlefield of love. It's also a terrific bit of storytelling, reminiscent of fellow Irishman Conor McPherson's The Weir, in which four men stranded in a bar compete for the affections of one woman by telling ghost stories. Except here, the characters are haunted by their own future ghosts, which should happen sooner than later.
Because the show requires height (Penelope's lair is above a swimming pool that's deep enough to take swan dives), Undermain uses the stage of the new Dallas City Performance Hall, the first purely work of theater in the space since it opened in September. But with 750 seats, the Hall is way too big for the audiences Undermain is used to (which is the same story for most theaters here), so they produce it entirely on the stage, with the audience up there too. It looks to be slightly fewer seats than we get in the Undermain's basement space, which has a low ceiling.
Russell Parkman's set, Claudia Stephens' costumes, Robert Winn's props and Steve Woods' lighting all aid that balance of the whimsical and deadly seriousness, and kudos to the actors for daring to speak such poetic musings while donning ridiculous banana hammocks.
They do perform it beautifully. As the most outwardly virile vermin, Dubose and Hartman keep the one-upmanship spiraling upward not with antagonistic chest bumps, but rather stone-cold stares, an occasional smug grin and a palpable "I got this" air. Burns is misunderstood by his competitors, as accusations about a dead suitor, Murray, fly about, and Lush balances the character's delicate emotion with survivalist instincts. He's still there, after all.
And then there's Elliott. He doesn't spout off as much as the others, but when he does, he makes the audience swoon, notably in that aforementioned speech, which he delivers as if it's a tenor's big aria. Realizing that this crew is basically flotsam waiting to happen, he gets to the essence of the play with the line "none of us can swim, which is ironic because we've spent the worst part of our lives in a swimming pool."
They might be dead in the water, but we're all the richer for having spent 80 minutes at the first great production of 2013.
◊ Read our Q&A with playwright Enda Walsh here.