Stephen Drover’s Penelope is Truthful and Humorous

Patrick Keating, Alex Ferguson and Sean Devine cred Tim Matheson

The Cultch’s 2013/2014 season opened with Rumble Theatre’s presentation of Penelope. Written by Irish playwright Enda Walsh, Penelope tells the story of the hopeful suitors who flocked to Penelope’s home when her husband Odysseus was fighting in the Trojan War. Although that war has now been over for 10 years, Odysseus has still not yet returned home which has made the fight for Penelope’s hand in marriage more ruthless. Only four men remain and none of them are particularly good candidates.

The men are currently taking up residence in Penelope’s emptied pool. It looks exactly how you would imagine a pool would look like if it had been housing men for who knows how many years. It is decayed, filthy and, well, just all around pretty disgusting (kudos to the set designer and props assistant).  The show opens with Burns (Kyle Jespersen) submissively cleaning blood off the wall of the pool while Quinn (Alex Lazaridis Ferguson) struts about in a self-satisfied manner. The social dynamics are quite clear, Quinn is in charge and everyone else supports him or, in Burns’ case, serves him.  The other two remaining men, Fitz and Dunne, seem to just do what they need to do in order to survive with the latter trying very hard to do his best impression of Quinn-in- training. Burns wants to discuss what happened to Murray (the owner of the blood now smeared upon the pool wall) but Quinn doesn’t want to discuss it and silences the topic with aggressive glares or a biting comments.  However, this peacocking behaviour is momentarily put aside when the men discover they have all had the same dream, a dream where Odysseus returns, ruthlessly kills them and reclaims his kingdom.  Deemed a premonition of things to come, the men somewhat band “together” to achieve Penelope’s hand before Odysseus manages to return.

It is here where the audience bears witness to how the suitors have been trying to win Penelope’s love. They are projected onto a T.V. where Penelope can listen to their words of “love” and admiration. She can put a halt to at any given moment, especially if she does not like what she sees or hears.  The men collectively decide that Dunne is their best bet. Apparently the most gifted wordsmith and actor, Dunne approaches the microphone and begins uttering words that seem to be poetic…ish… but his ramblings quickly turn into an awkward lust filled dialogue that would not even appear in the pages of the worst Harlequin romance novels. Fitz, the oldest of the remaining men is next up, but not by his choosing. He is anxious and tongue-tied from the outset but once he regains his composure, he starts to speak earnestly and honestly about life and love. Penelope reacts to his speech and appears at the patio window. The men are captivated by the sight of her, as she has never ventured this far from her house, but it is quickly ruined when Quinn appears ready to make his own plea for Odysseus’s wife.  She retreats at the sight of Quinn returning but re-emerges during his “presentation” (the comedy highlight of the show) and genuinely seems amused by his efforts. The humour abruptly ends when the other men suddenly attack Quinn, stabbing him, and permanently removing him from the competition.

Realizing what they have done and what their actions have cost them, Burns decides to remedy the situation by making an impassioned speech about love. Not the deep and everlasting love that Penelope has for Odysseus but a renewal of love for each other and mankind that has since become lost. Burns’ speech seems to touch Penelope and she comes to the edge of the pool where he exclaims “Love is saved!” when Penelope makes a move to extend a hand towards him. Unfortunately (or maybe fortunately?), the sight of Odysseus’ ship stops her, and the men accept what fate has in store for them.

Directed by Stephen Drover (The Last Days of Judas Iscariot), Penelope is a familiar tale of what people are willing to do in the “name” of love, but actually what people are willing to do in the name of power. The play is humorous and truthful in its portrayal but the characters are quite unlikeable. None of them are worth Penelope’s hand and even the men themselves know that. For me, the most unlikeable character was not Quinn, but Burns. Quinn is clear in his intent. Sure, he’s pretty terrible as a human being but he seems to be the only one who knows that this competition is just that, a competition.  Burns on the other hand, is weak and keeps hanging on to the notion that the world and the people in it (including himself) have not changed. His unwillingness to accept his current situation for what it is, is frustrating. To be fair, Penelope was probably about to give herself to Burns had it not been for Odysseus’ return, but was it because she was actually moved by his words? Or was it because after 20 years of waiting for her husband, Penelope had just given up? Thankfully, Burns was right about one thing, love was saved. Just not the love he was hoping for.

Penelope is playing at The Cultch until October 13th.