Los Angeles Theater Review: PENELOPE (Rogue Machine Theatre)

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by Jason Rohrer on June 16, 2014

in Theater-Los Angeles


John Perrin Flynn and Brenda Davidson’s production of Penelope is so vivid that it’s hard for me to imagine the play in any other presentation – even though I’ve recently seen another that had its own strengths.  Flynn’s direction is unequivocal, authoritative.  He finds the excitement and narrative drive carefully laid underneath Enda Walsh’s impossibly literate poetic banter, and he has inspired a company of serious artists to tell the tale with flirtatious gravity.

Odysseus is on his way home from Troy, a legendary voyage involving feats of seamanship, generalship, every ship that looks good on a mythic hero.  This great soldier and thinker and lover and king is coming home to his queen, Penelope, the keeper of his land and titles.  Homer’s Odyssey ends with Odysseus’s immediate slaughter of the opportunistic miscreants who have been raiding his larder and wine cellar, and trying to seduce his wife, for the last twenty years.  It’s one of literature’s great scenes of butchery, rivaling any passage in the Iliad for entrails spilled and brains bursting from cloven skulls.  But Odysseus does not appear in this play.  This play is about the last day before he comes home.  It is about those avaricious leeches hanging around his house, cowering and primping and persuading the object of their lust that she should marry one of them at once, spurning her husband before he has a chance to win her back by killing all of them in a horrible manner.  If they are not to be reduced to a stack of greasy kindling, it’s got to happen today.  And since (in a titanically cheeky what-if) Walsh has made them not Greek but Irish, that most unlikely race of optimists ever spawned, it’s just possible that they might pull this thing off.

A bookish junkie (Richard Fancy), an arrogant prick (Ron Bottitta), a conflicted sycophant (Scott Sheldon), and a vain psychopath (Brian Letscher) prance and philosophize to outdo each other and win the ethereal beauty (Holly Fulger) who alone can save them.  They are bad men who know that they are capable of terrible things, to varying degrees gone to pot now and fearful of mortality, of their deserts, of having done nothing good enough and very little good or bad at all with the prime of their lives.  They are all hyper-articulate, because an idea is just an idea until it’s well-phrased; only then can it take on the mantle of purpose.  There is a lot of skin in this show, and a lot of blood; these bodies radiate human power and frailty.  The empty pool in which they brawl (scenic design by the remarkably able Stephanie Kerley Schwartz, well-lit by Ric Zimmerman; subdued video and sound design by Corwin Evans and Christopher Moscatiello, respectively), the vaguely absurd Speedos and lounging robes they wear (costumes by Lauren Tyler), and especially the words with which they muse and attack: this is a space thrilling to visit, horrifying, necessary.

The heights of acting are here, an absolute requisite for a text this rich.  Fancy creates a punchy, quivering rummy frightening to see and to hear, and Bottitta channels his immense energies into building up a frustrated has-been into a could-be.  Letscher struts sharklike among his fellows, an alpha male secretly fragile.  Sheldon has the least to do but fleshes out his creepy loser into a characterization that jibes with the late emergence of a spine.  Fulger is a grave and impossible aspiration, her silence as eloquent as most women’s speech.  It’s a show to see over again, to relish the awful wonders of competition, victory, loss.  After two views and a reading, I still think this script has at least one too many monologues, but not so’s you’d notice at Rogue Machine.  Everything burns in this fiery presentation; it’s all ash, so hot so fast and so soon gone, the way of all flesh.

photos by John Flynn

Rogue Machine Theatre
Theatre/Theater, 5041 W. Pico Blvd
Fri and Sat at 8; Sun at 3
scheduled to end on August 10, 2014
EXTENDED to August 17, 2014
for tickets, call 855.585.5185 or visit Rogue Machine

{ 3 comments… read them below or add one }

Ron Di Costanzo June 16, 2014 at 4:40 pm

This is a solid review – well-written and thoughtful. I’m not sure the play needs to be seen again. (I’m more likely to re-visit Gruesome Playground Injuries.) But I definitely would like to read it. The lush language attacks the audience perhaps too forcefully in places. But it is a first-rate production all around.


Francesca June 17, 2014 at 4:06 pm

Excellent review for this extraordinary play and these performances. I’d love to see it again, to explore more and more the many layers of meaning that form this existential theater piece.


Albert Sweeney July 14, 2014 at 8:26 pm

This play was an obvious ripoff of Waiting for Godot. The actors are all pasty, flabby white guys who spend most of the play running around on stage in Speedos 2 sizes too small. PLEAAASE, put your robes back on. The copious amount of partial nudity was distracting and added nothing to the presentation. It was just gross. Some points in the play were powerful, but they were few and far between. I would not recommend this play.


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