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Penelope at Steppenwolf Theatre Company | Theater review

Irish wordsmith Enda Walsh fleshes out the suitors of Odysseus’ wife in all their absurdity.

Photograph: Michael Brosilow
Penelope at Steppenwolf Theatre Company

As Odysseus struggled to return from the Trojan War, men gathered outside his house, determined to win the hand of his wife, Penelope. According to Homer, there were 108 suitors; as Irish playwright Enda Walsh turns his attention to them, that number has dwindled to four. These remaining competitors spend their days beneath Penelope’s window, lounging at the bottom of a drained swimming pool in bathrobes and Speedos, waiting for Penelope to give in and choose one of them—or for her husband to return and put them all to death. The outlook’s pretty bleak, when you come down to it. “We’re the talking dead,” says one.

And talk they do. The competitors for Penelope’s approval bicker and banter, taunt and appease. Quinn (Yasen Peyankov), the most menacing, badgers Burns (Ian Barford), the youngest, over the recent death of a fifth suitor. (Walt Spangler’s clever set is strewn with empty deck chairs representing the men who’ve come and gone.) The preening Dunne (Scott Jaeck) struts and frets while bookish Fitz (Tracy Letts) tries to stay above the fray and “distract myself with Homer”; clearly he doesn’t read to the end. Their spats are interrupted only when Penelope (the gorgeous, silent Logan Vaughn) deigns to tune in from above, watching via closed-circuit camera and allowing one of them a final chance to pitch woo.

It’s in the competitors’ monologues, as they claw through adjectives and images in frustrated attempts to justify their love, that Walsh’s dexterity with words comes through most compellingly. Letts, pinch-hitting for the absent John Mahoney, has the most moving speech. Elsewhere, when the men babble about Brothers Grimm tales or snap over Slim Jims, you can begin to wonder at the forced Speedo-clad ridiculousness of it all. When Quinn makes his final presentation, an elaborate costume parade set to “Spanish Flea,” Walsh seems to be overindicating absurdity. But perhaps that’s his point: It’s all just junk food and words till we reach the end of our odyssey.

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