A Odyssey of Sorts

The Rogue lifts Enda Walsh’s mythology of male

I love this Rogue. Explosive. Smart. Funny. Fearless. Bright.

This Rogue recognizes what possibilities challenging material present, and takes it on full out. This Rogue is not afraid to wander into realms of the ridiculous, even as it plumbs impressive depths.

This Rogue has staged a wild and woolly Penelope, a play by Enda Walsh, a madly eloquent Irish playwright unafraid to not only to step out of the box, but to toss it to the recycling bin. And maybe while poking around in there, he might discover another recyclable to trigger his mad skills.

Here, that recycled material is Homer's Odyssey, the classic story of a mighty warrior who, leaving his beautiful wife to wait for his uncertain return, knows that hundreds of would-be suitors will court her with all their manly tools. Strutting, competing, showing off, maybe even destroying themselves with their competition for her attention, these men will test his wife's fidelity.

Walsh doesn't mess around with trying to update the tale or even re-interpret it. He takes the basic idea of Penelope as the object of men's desires and shows us this assortment of men who've made it to the final four suitors. They've been hanging around for a couple of decades, seeming to have lives elsewhere but obviously ignoring them, meeting everyday in the tiled cavern of a drained swimming pool, one wall of which is streaked with a ghostly smear of blood.

They've gotten nowhere with Penelope and have achieved nothing except their status as what's left of Penelope's multitude of suitors. But in persisting with their goal, they are courting not only Penelope, but their own destruction. Their competition leads them to damage each other physically and emotionally, and if an angry Odysseus returns to find one of them consorting with his wife, the winner's prize is his own doom.

Walsh gives us plenty to chew on in a wonderfully wacky package. From the first moment, presented with an odd scene where we are made aware of the mysterious artifact around which the men gather—a shiny gas grill—we are sucked in to his rowdy vision. There is plenty there to keep us intrigued.

Walsh takes a classical story of mythological proportions and re-imagines it as the mythology of the Male. (How great is his choice of an outdoor grill as a symbol of manly expertise?) His focus is not on the virtuous Penelope, who has been extoled as the epitome of female loyalty. Here, her presence is merely as a shadowy, silent and distant siren. When her presence is detected, each of the men take a turn wooing her by offering their pleas of varying eloquence and sense. They stand at a microphone in a pool of light, facing the audience; Penelope's form is visible to us behind a screen.

Walsh's focus on this company of men spending their lives gathered in a non-functioning swimming pool is not a pretty picture, but it is a fascinating and rich one.

And oh, the words of courtship are exalted and fanciful and strained. But how utterly empty can be their utility, their effect. After their initial joyful, pretty noise, their echo ultimately disappears into silence. The suitors' words go up in flames, as might they, on the altar of the mysterious silver grill.

Rogue's production, directed by Christopher Johnson, is captivating in so many ways. His passion for the theme shows, and he and his cast have discovered a credible course through this utterly funny and thoughtful story.

It helps, of course, that he has a fine cast. Matt Bowdren plays Quinn, a preening specimen of a man, always working on, and showing off, his taut body. (By the way, if you have issues with staring at men in Speedos for an hour and a half, you might want to resolve those before you come, or at least check them at the door.) He's a bully and can be cruel and officious when dealing with his cohorts, especially Burns (Eric Du), who is rather soft and temperate, an outsider. Ryan Parker Knox plays Dunne, a man who, when given the stage to woo Penelope, explodes into a such a feverish spouting of words that he literally breaks into song. And Joseph McGrath is Fitz, the senior of the group, who begins his one-way conversation with Penelope tentatively, but his rambling soliloquy gradually finds wise and tender insights.

Together director and actors find a way to interpret all that Walsh coughs up, sometimes a bit too extravagantly, onto the pages of his script. They are courageous in allowing themselves to be vulnerable in their strange world and they skillfully find and communicate the humor—and sometimes the rank absurdity—of their, and our, lives.

As in all Rogue productions, the design elements are carefully imagined and executed. Also a critical part of all their productions is music. Here, regular Jake Sorgen creates electronic sounds and effects that provide both context and texture for Walsh's story. His contributions are always interesting.

There a few things that makes one wonder about different choices. For example, a choice to use older actors in a couple of the roles would give us a different, and perhaps fuller, dimension of all that Walsh gives us here. If some of these guys have been around for 20 years, their courtship would have begun when they were children. And although there is great hilarity when Quinn puts on his show for Penelope's sake, it seems a bit out of character, although with these guys, who knows? But these things hardly cast a distracting shadow on all that is delivered so well.

Walsh's script is playful and funny and yields both a ridiculous and thoughtful vision. Rogue's production finds that playful and funny and interprets that vision with invention and vitality.

I love this Rogue.