Penelope Review: Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Hits a Homer with Penelope.

Penelope Review: Chicago's Steppenwolf Theatre Hits a Homer with Penelope.
Photo by Michael Brosilow.

If you left Steppenwolf Theatre after watching Enda Walsh’s Penelope thinking “it’s Greek to me,”  (incomprehensible) you wouldn’t be alone.  Steppenwolf’s second main stage offering of the 2011/12 season, an innovative take on Homer’s Greek poem “The Odyssey”, features four Speedo-clad men drowning in their desires and lost hopes at the bottom of Penelope’s bloodied, drained swimming pool. The production offers much food for thought–as the glamorous, unobtainable, Penelope floats above the fray in her palace watching, the guys playing their Herb Alpert music, barbecuing sausages on a grill that won’t fire up, and pontificating on life, from her closed-circuit television.

For this production, the Irish playwright Walsh has drawn from the part of “The Odyssey” that he found the most compelling.  He explains, “I wanted to write about wasted life, so that was the starting point for me to create these suitors who are desperately searching for redemption in the face of death.”

For those whose memories of “The Odyssey” may be a little rusty…in Homer’s poem, a horde of over 100 violent suitors established themselves in the palace trying to win the affections of Penelope who patiently awaits the return of her husband, the Greek war hero, Odysseus.  It was around 1173 BC (or BCE), ten years after the fall of Troy, but still Odysseus had not returned to his kingdom in Ithaca.  As the years passed, the original group of 100 plus men was reduced to four.  It is those four remaining suitors along with Penelope that are the focus of the story.  Locked in a do-or-die competition to win Penelope’s love, the randy suitors preen and posture themselves in a last ditch effort to cheat a grisly fate.

Steppenwolf Ensemble member Ian Barford (Burns) may have put it best when he described the play saying “I think of it as a ‘Survivor’ episode on steroids… a cutthroat game of survival told through great language filled with humor and pathos.”  The five-member cast, in pure Steppenwolf fashion presents a smart, wildly funny and witty take on the tale.  Tracy Letts as Fitz, is wrapped up in his own world of books and medications yet comes out in a wonderful soliloquy to try to win Penelope’s affections; Yasen Peyankov’s Quinn, entertains with his quirky over-the-top performance;  Scott Jaeck lightens the mood with his humorous Dunne, while Ian Barford as the bereft Burns is sadly touching yet humorous at the same time.  Although she spoke not a word, Logan Vaughn’s physical carriage and spiritual presence as Penelope says it all.

Director and ensemble member Amy Morton, sums up Penelope and Walsh saying  “His work is very strange–It’s very poetic but at the same time physically strenuous and sometimes vulgar in a great way.”  The rest of the production team for Penelope includes: Walt Spangler (scenic design), Ana Kuzmanic (costume design), James F. Ingalls (lighting design), Rob Milburn & Michael Bodeen (sound design and original music) and Kirk Anderson (fight choreography). Additional credits include: Erica Daniels (casting), Malcolm Ewen (stage manager) and Christine D. Freeburg (assistant stage manager).

Steppenwolf’s 2011/12 season.

This season Steppenwolf explores “Dispatches from the Homefront”, by examining how everyday lives are touched by war.  In each of the five plays, war exerts a pressure—sometimes centrally, sometimes obliquely—on the lives of the characters—and moves them to action.  The plays are alive with the humor, the tenderness and the urgency of lives struggling to find home.

The Playwright.

Enda Walsh is an Obie Award-winning playwright and screenwriter whose plays include Disco Pig, The Walworth Farce, The New Electric Ballroom and Chatroom.  His 2008 biopic, Hunger, won numerous awards including the Camera d’Or at the Cannes Film Festival. Amy Morton’s many Steppenwolf directing credits include Clybourne Park, American Buffalo, Dublin Carol, The Weir, The Pillowman, Love-Lies-Bleeding (also Kennedy Center) and Glengarry Glen Ross (also Dublin and Toronto).

Steppenwolf’s Downstairs Theatre
, 1650 N. Halsted St.   Regular Run: $20-$78. Running time: 90 minutes, no intermission. Penelope runs through February 5, 2012. 312-335-1650.

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