In middle school, I acted in a production of The Odyssey. Bored by a dumbed-down script, our adolescent cast attempted to punch it up with absurdity: Circe wore a sweater vest yet spoke in slang. I choreographed a techno dance routine to Eiffel 65. We had a delightfully juvenile time on stage, though I doubt our audience had as much fun.
I experienced a similar disconnect between stage and spectators during Third Rail Repertory's dense, dizzying production of Penelope, directed by Philip Cuomo. Irish playwright Enda Walsh's word-drunk script seems to make sense to the cast, who energetically plunge into the overstuffed text and slapstick antics. But up in the audience, I found myself more baffled than awed by this Homeric riff.
Casting aside all The Odyssey's heroism, Walsh's play centers on Penelope's final quartet of sad-sack, Speedo-clad suitors. When we meet this pitiable bunch, they've just had identical dreams portending Odysseus' brutal return. Today will not end well. But until that gruesome end, the four have little to do but wait. And talk. Each suitor gets a turn to woo Penelope (Britt Harris), who watches the verbal choreography on closed-circuit television. It's like a perverse, long-winded episode of The Bachelorette. There's the vain, rambling Dunne (Tim True, whose physicality powers much of the production's humor); the subservient Burns (an understated Christopher David Murray); the sad and scholarly Fitz (an endearing Bruce Burkhartsmeier); and the bombastic Quinn (Michael O'Connell, in an appropriately over-the-top performance), who forgoes philosophical musings for a ridiculous pantomime of legendary courtships.
There's a fair bit of Stooge-esque slapstick here, some of which is genuinely funny, and the actors have a familiar way of teasing each other. Yet no matter their energy, a sense of stasis plagues the production. Homer's Penelope was cunning (remember that shroud she wove each day and undid each night), but Walsh reduces her to a pretty, unspeaking presence—a trophy, sure, but not enough to create real dramatic impetus. That's what Walsh's language should do, but it's too bloated to take us anywhere. Dunne puts it best: "I tried to appeal to more literary sensibilities, but I couldn't control my bile."
SEE IT: Penelope is at Winningstad Theatre, Portland Center for the Performing Arts, 1111 SW Broadway, 235-1101. 7:30 pm Thursdays-Saturdays; 2 pm Sundays. Closes June 17. $29.50-$38.50. $14.50 students.