"Penelope" (Steppenwolf Theatre): The Ugly Side of Men

"Penelope" (Steppenwolf Theatre): The Ugly Side of Men

I love men.  Wars, Nascar, fantasy football... I don’t always *get* men but I love them.  They are complicated.  They compete.  They want to win.  They want the corner office, the championship ring, the trophy wife.  They want the best.  But why?  What is more important:  the quest or the prize?

Steppenwolf Theatre presents PENELOPE.  Four guys are competing for the attention of a beautiful woman.  They don’t even know her but they must have her.  From the depths of a vacated pool, each tries to woo her with his poetic charms.  She observes them from her living room pedestal.  They are the four surviving suitors from the hundred men challenge.  Recently, each has had the same prophesying dream.  They dreamt Penelope’s husband returns home and barbecues each of them.  They decide to avoid this tragic ending, someone must win Penelope before her husband arrives.  Game on! PENELOPE attracts the inner ugly in the sperm pool.

Playwright Enda Walsh (no relation) imagines a contemporary twist on Homer’s “Odyssey.”  During the Trojan War and long journey home, Ulysses has been separated from his wife Penelope. In his absence, a hundred men have tried to woo his wife.  Walsh’s story sets the last four suitors in Speedos at the bottom of a pool.  The idea is clever.  And from lights up, the look is spectacular. Scenic Designer Walt Spangler creates an unforgettable visual.  It’s a swimming pool on-stage complete with abandoned beach chair sculptures.  It’s aqua-fantastic.  Above ground, Penelope’s home and costume (Designer Ana Kuzmanic) contrast with stunning elegance.  The music is 1960’s “The Dating Game” groovy.  Fun idea, fun set, fun sound.  I’m ready to be playfully wooed.

It doesn’t happen.  I don’t love these men.  I mean the characters.  I love the actors, especially one of my Chicago favorites Tracy Letts.  These characters are all despicable. I can’t align myself to champion a victor.  I want them all out of the pool and out of Penelope’s life before her husband gets home.  Walsh makes his men mean-spirited with no bro-mance in sight.  There is some locker-room-towel-snapping buffoonery.  The visual comedy is burlesque-style with ill-advised Speedos.  This light-hearted stuff is amusing.  It’s the sniping and cruelty that keeps me from engaging completely.  Letts and Ian Barford have heart-felt soliloquies but I’m not connecting to what they are saying.  Even the best pick-up line ever won’t work on me if I’m turned off by how you treat people around you.

PENELOPE dives into the deep, dark end.  Although the visuals and techniques are buoyant, the characters’ natures weigh me down.  Yasen Peyankov has this impressive cross-dressing skit.  It’s funny but I don’t get it. Why would this be alluring to Penelope?  And a better question, what’s the appeal for me? You are a dick.  It doesn’t matter what you put on, I can’t get over that.  All these men are barbaric in their courtship. I don’t get them. So, I remain detached. I like my men, like my meat... distinctly flavorful and tender with a side of zesty bbq sauce.

Definitely a select choice in my life, Joshua J. Volkers describes it with ‘distracted by bananas.’

Running Time:  Ninety minutes with no intermission

At Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted Street

Written by Enda Walsh

Directed by Amy Morton

Tuesdays, Wednesdays, Thursdays, Fridays, Saturdays, Sundays at 7:30pm

(Sunday evening performances through January 15th only)

Saturday and Sunday matinees at 3pm

Wednesday matinees on January 18th & 25th, February 1st at 2pm

Thru February 5th

Buy Tickets at www.steppenwolf.org

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