There is a touch of “Waiting for Godot” in the time-filling meanderings of the four men we find cooking sausages in an empty swimming pool in Enda Walsh’s sideways take on Homer’s “The Odyssey.” These suitors have been shooting the breeze here for years in the vain hope of winning the hand of the beautiful Penelope. Unlike Beckett’s characters, however, they will not wait forever. As soon as Penelope’s husband, Ulysses, returns, their futile lives will be over. Their realization of this leads to an extended bout of soul searching as ridiculous and philosophical as fans of this singular playwright have come to expect.
If anything, “Penelope” is an even more heady ride than Walsh’s previous Druid hits, “The Walworth Farce” and “The New Electric Ballroom.” There are characteristic bouts of eccentric theatricality in helmer Mikel Murfi’s production, which tours to Brooklyn’s St. Ann’s Warehouse in the fall. But like the modern-day Greek classic it is, “Penelope” is built from long, philosophically demanding speeches about the true nature of love that require the aud’s concentration whenever the laughter dies down.
Walsh, a playwright drawn to closed worlds with their own oddball logic, has found in “The Odyssey” not a dynamic hero but a group of dissolute narcissists who project their fantasies onto the unobtainable Penelope (a mesmerizingly silent Olga Wehrly).
Drinking cocktails in their bathrobes or preening themselves in their too-small swimming trunks, they make a pitiful display of impotent manhood, the more so because they have so much conceited self-belief. Somehow these ridiculous figures are the last men standing in a competition for Penelope’s hand that has lasted for all the years of Ulysses’ absence.
At last, their prophetic dreams tell them the hero’s return is imminent, and they are compelled into a combination of surreal speechifying and existential analysis in a last-ditch attempt to do something with their lives. What they edge toward is a belated understanding that to love someone is to set them free.
The language is dense and demanding even as it is bizarre and funny. “Penelope” is not the most accessible of Walsh’s plays, but, thanks to superbly assured performances from Niall Buggy, Denis Conway, Tadhg Murphy and Karl Shiels, the production is never less than compelling.