Los Angeles Theater Review: PENELOPE (California Repertory Company in Long Beach)

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by Jason Rohrer on November 11, 2013

in Theater-Los Angeles


Consider the last four suitors of Odysseus’s grass widow, Queen Penelope of Ithaca.  Clad in Speedos, the men have gathered their dwindling numbers for the last twenty years at the Trojan War hero’s palace to feast themselves pudgy while their rival performs Homeric feats on his way home to kill them all.  They all dreamed last night that the end was today, so the fire’s lit under them to get Penelope to accept Brian Mulligan and Craig Anton in Cal Rep's production of PENELOPE.one of their number in marriage before her husband arrives.  As I’m-middle-aged-and-what-have-I-done reveries go, Enda Walsh’s 2010 Penelope has a marvelous set-up.  If the play or Amanda McRaven’s direction were as active as the premise, it’d be something to see.

As it is, for the vast majority of the play nobody does anything but talk.  It’s good talk, some of it exquisite; Mr. Walsh sings from a long line of loquacious Irish bards, and his violent, iconoclastic syntax delivers many a satisfying surprise.  Each of the four men bitches and preens to his fellows and to himself.  Each eats pretzels and drinks martinis and complains about going to seed.  Each delivers a lengthy protestation of love (via closed-circuit video in this production, courtesy media designer Nick Santiago) to Penelope, who makes an occasional silent appearance.  But the characters’ lack of momentum even after the spark of Odysseus’s imminent arrival, and the director’s dearth of ideas not explicated in the script, make for a 90 minute show that feels like it takes forever.

Andre Garner, Roberto Alcaraz and Craig Anton in Cal Rep's production of PENELOPE.These are competent actors, some of them very good; Craig Anton portrays a fully realized mischievous bully, and as a bitter also-ran, Brian Mulligan spews extremely credible rage.  Roberto Alcaraz and Andre Garner are less successful at finding a grounded reality from which to emote.  And Ms. McRaven gives her cast little assistance in terms of onstage business or, apparently, character insight besides what Mr. Walsh has delineated.  Early bits, mostly involving Mr. Anton, are delightfully physical, but the play soon degenerates into men standing and declaiming.  These are beautiful speeches about the dangers of faith: in mythology, in other people, in the self.  But they pile up after awhile with no progression of action to separate or motivate them.

Andre Garner, Brian Mulligan and Roberto Alcaraz in Cal Rep's production of PENELOPE.These speeches are delivered from a set that distracts from their power, while security video of the Queen Mary’s hallways plays over the many television monitors, some cathode-ray and some flatscreen, that litter the proscenium.  Benjamin Weinert-Lishner has inexplicably designed a welded-steel playing area that, while impressive and imposing, in no way resembles the empty swimming pool repeatedly referred to in the dialogue.  It’s a choice, just as having all that video onstage or dressing some of the actors anachronistically are choices.  But they don’t enhance the mood or assist the playwright; they’re esoteric gestures that undermine an already problematic play.

Cynthia Price, Andre Garner, Craig Anton, Brian Mulligan and Roberto Alcaraz in Cal Rep's production of PENELOPE.photos by Keith Ian Polakoff

California Repertory Company
Royal Theatre
aboard the Queen Mary in Long Beach
scheduled to end on December 7, 2013
for tickets, call 562.985.5526
or visit www.calrep.org

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