"We are the talking dead." So says Burns (Kyle Jespersen) at one point in Penelope, Enda Walsh's sly and savage take on Homer's Odyssey, on at the Vancouver East Cultural Centre through October 13 in a Rumble Theatre production directed by Stephen Drover. Burns is one of four remaining suitors vying for the hand of the most famous abandoned wife in Ithaca. Over the past 20 years he has witnessed more than 100 of his kind die trying, either failing to outlast Penelope's exceedingly discriminating selection process or, as with his friend Murray, succumbing to the suggestive rhetoric of their rivals. Among those rivals still standing are Quinn (Alex Lazaridis Ferguson), a vain alpha-male who treats Burns like his personal lap-dog; Dunne (Sean Devine), theatrically Falstaffian in his outsized bodily appetites; and Fitz (Patrick Keating), the older, drug-addled intellectual who, try though he might, cannot "forget the prize." Having all had the same prophetic dream that Odysseus is set to return this day, each man has one last chance to pitch woo to Penelope (a mute Lindsay Winch), who watches their attempts at seduction via closed-circuit television in her villa, and who, should she choose one of them, would save them all.
Did I mention that all of this takes place in a drained swimming pool (the stunning set is designed by Drew Facey), with the suitors comically clad in speedos? The metaphor is an apt one: having been deprived of their medium, the men are all message, one in which we literally see the measure of each. Walsh presents this rhetoric of masculinity as a continuum. On one end is the abject yet still idealistic Burns, who believes in the possibility of platonic love between two men, and that he shared just such a bond with the dead Murray. At the other end is Quinn, a combination of David Mamet's Ricky Roma and Oliver Stone's Gordon Gekko, who thinks that men are hardwired to be competitive, that hate and mistrust are what motivate them, and that the early bird always gets the worm--or, as is the case in the play's hilarious opening set-piece (where Ferguson, especially, establishes his cartoonish he-man bona fides), the sausage.
Quinn is the embodiment of capitalist ideology. Having convinced Dunne and Fitz that if they work together to form a company whose sole goal is to ensure that one of them succeeds in winning Penelope's hand, he then purposefully scuttles Fitz's speech when it looks like that one will not be him. Interestingly, when it comes time for his own moment in the spotlight before Penelope, Quinn doesn't speak at all; instead he stages an elaborate pantomime where, conscripting Burns' help, he plays both the male and female leads in a succession of recycled romantic plots (Napoleon and Josephine, Rhett Butler and Scarlet O'Hara, Romeo and Juliet, JFK and Jackie). Perhaps because he only knows how to use words to wound he hasn't the facility for seduction of the others; or perhaps he, unlike them, realizes that he doesn't have to mean what he says. That is, he doesn't have to be sincere (hence his burlesquing of the very ideal of love), he just has to win.
I won't spoil things by revealing whether or not that's the case. What I will say is that all of the actors in this tightly helmed production are superb, forswearing all vanity to revel in the richness of Walsh's language. And I'll also plug my own post-show talk on October 10th, when I'll have more to say about the performances of masculinity on offer in the play.