To get a sense of Third Rail Repertory’s new show Penelope, first imagine the movie Troy with Brad Pitt: young, muscled men fighting heroic battles of strength and agility while spewing vapid dialogue that barely bothers to explain the plot. Now imagine its opposite: balding, middle-aged men with guts sparring words that plumb the depths of their meaningless, not to mention heroically gutless, existence with razor wit. Both are inspired by the Homeric classic "The Odyssey," but otherwise couldn’t be further apart. One’s a feast of flesh, the other a feast of words.
Written by lauded Irish playwright and screenwriter Enda Walsh, Penelope riffs off a domestic subplot to the original Greek epic: after Odysseus departs to fight the Trojan War, some 100 plus suitors colonize his estate, eating his food and trying to win the hand of his wife, Penelope. After 20 years, only four remain (the rest having killed themselves or each other we learn), and time has not treated them well. Mostly overweight and balding, they pass their days in the bottom of a drained swimming pool, wearing little but Speedos and bath robes, with a full bar, some folding chairs, a grill that doesn’t work, and a fresh blood stain on the mildewed pool wall. While their physiques might have faded, their egos have not, as they to speak in soliloquies and sweeping statements, like “Time’s a tragedy,” and pose and preen like show horses, each competing to win Penelope’s heart (she watches them on closed caption from the third floor of the run down, blue shuttered Mediterranean villa—and it should be said that Demetri Pavlatos’ decaying set is incredible).
On the day of our drama, they have all had the same dream: Odysseus is about to return, and today is the last chance for one of them to win Penelope’s heart before they are all flayed by the no doubt still virile hero. The parallels to Waiting for Godot are inescapable, with a good deal of Survivor thrown in and not a small dash of a “Greek” frat party (that is, a never ending one that’s bled into its own reunion a thousand times over).
The acting is outstanding from these four Third Rail vets as their characters battle words, egos, and occasionally strength. Michael O’Connell, in his bright red Speedos and full head of gelled hair, plays the blowhard alpha male Quinn, who comes across as a greasy New Age self-help guru, complete with karate chops and a blow torch to cook his hotdog (not to mention an elaborate performance within the performance consisting of multiple costume changes and seemingly the whole Western canon when it’s his turn to woo Penelope). He’s constantly pushing around Chris Murray as Burns, the youngest of the bunch and the only one with some decency and desire for friendship, who slowly cracks as the day progresses. Tim True is hilarious as the overwrought dandy, his hands moving in flowery circular conjuring motions—“Certainly I would’ve investigated a life in thee-A-ter,” he says, if only he hadn’t pursued this pool bound one. Finally, Bruce Burkhartsmeier plays Fitz as a medicated boob of an intellectual who mostly sits in his folding chair reading, you guessed it, Homer.
From one of the first epic tales of transnational adventure, we get the confined story of four men whose lives have become so small and meaningless that all they know is each other and the unceasing dream that one day, maybe one day, one of them will win Penelope’s heart. They might not be sailing the seas like their feared nemesis Odysseus, but there’s an existential epic in their conversation, and the wonder of the play truly lays in its writing, which shifts nimbly from the elaborate and philosophical to the absurdly base. While Penelope’s onslaught of words might feel like forced feeding to some, fattening us up like the verbal equivalent to some Bacchanal, to lovers of language and the joyous and intricate play of words, it’s a feast much more provocative than another pretty body in a suit of armor.