One Sunday afternoon last month, at the suggestion of one of my wife’s friends, we added one more show to our regular Studio Theatre subscription series, and went to see Enda Walsh’s “Penelope”.
Enda Walsh is a youngish Irish playwright, much honored, three of whose plays are being performed this spring at the Studio as part of what they call their New Irish Festival. “Penelope”, a recent Walsh piece, is a side bar, satirical take-off on a small event in Homer’s “Odyssey”. It is the story of Mrs. Homer, Penelope, who during the 20 years of her husband’s absence is beset by, and spurns, would be suitors of every ilk.
In Walsh’s imaginative (if nothing else) piece, set in an unreal place at an unnamed and not quite discernable time, an unspeaking image of a Penelope, watches from above on a television screen, as four hapless men, ages 20-60, sit in their bathrobes and speedos, having a barbecue in a drained swimming pool, pleading their cases and demeaning each other, while from time to time Herb Alpert’s Tijuana Brass best known recordings loudly play in the background.
Yes, you read all of that right. But “what does it really mean?”, you say. Why the swimming pool and the tv and the barbecue and the bathrobes?
Damned if I know – it didn’t mean anything to me. I couldn’t find the dots, much less connect them. And it didn’t help that I couldn’t follow what any of the four suitors were saying. Their soliloquies might just as well have been in Gaelic, for all the sense I made of it.
The critics loved it, here and in Galway, where it recently premiered (at least three of the four actors performed at the Druid Theatre, Galway production), although admitting to some confusion. Well, I was just confused.
Last night, it was time to see the second Enda Walsh play in the series (we see the third tomorrow), and I went as a subscriber and as a consequent matter of duty, expecting more of the same. This show was titled “The New Electric Ballroom”, and it has many of the same attributes of Penelope. This time, it is three (not four) sisters, living in a small house somewhere on the Irish coast, again at a time that can not be easily calculated.
It’s been a hard life for them, short on romance, short on money, short on marketable skills, short on vision. Their days are the same. The two older sisters never leave their house, and the younger one leaves only to bicycle to work at a fish packing house where, as she says, she converts fish to money. When home, they also engage in long soliloquies, talking of their pasts and their lack of a future. The only break of the day is when Patsy the fishmonger delivers the fish to the house. Patsy, lonely as the sisters and completely without companionship has a lot to say. He knows everything about everyone, since he spends his days going house to house, and he wants to report it all. But as soon as he comes, he is told in no uncertain terms to leave (although it seems to take a while for the seriousness of that message to get through).
But one day, he is invited to stay. He is a guest now, and over the course of the next twenty minutes or so, becomes rebaptized by the sisters and reborn, his background and fish smell removed, his dirty closed changed for a flashy blue/purple suit. And suddenly is a suitor to the youngest of the three sisters, speaking in a new way, singing crooner-style into a microphone, expressing his love, and delighting in all the possibilities of the future.
As in Penelope, we have suitors, we have soliloquies, we have music, we have people isolated and reminiscing about their wasted pasts. So, having disliked Penelope so, you would think that I would feel the same about Ballroom, right?
Wrong. I thought this play was terrific. Incredibly written and wonderfully performed. Where, in Penelope, I didn’t understand anything, here I thought I understood it all. In a brief statement after seeing Penelope, I suggested that Walsh should seek a new line of work. Now, I say ‘three cheers for Enda Walsh’.
We met some old friends at the theatre last night, a married couple. She said that she liked the play (although I did not see a lot of enthusiasm). He hated it. Hated it. Said he that he understood why it was just one act (90 minutes) – it was because they knew no one would be there for the second.
That, being my reaction to Penelope, intrigued me. Why did I feel so different about this one.
In commentaries and reviews about Walsh, the critics focus on his use of words. He is clearly a wordy playwright, who uses words to express both emotions and ideas. But in an interview, Walsh said that his script is only a small part of his plays, maybe 25%, the rest being what the director and actors do with the script. I can understand this – back when my daughter worked for another local theater, Theater J, she organized what were called 5 x 5’s, five five minute plays, inspired by the main stage production, performed after the featured work late on a Sunday afternoon. I had three or four five minute plays that I had written performed. One followed a David Mamet play, “Speed the Plow”.
I scribbled together a short script, a take-off on the Mamet production. I tried my best to sound like Mamet – short sentences and phrases, rapid fire delivery, repetition, etc.
Based on the script, I would have graded myself probably a gentleman’s C, but I was mesmerized by the play when produced. It sounded like it was written by a very clever Mamet satirizing Mamet – no one else could have written that, I said. But of course, it was all me. And it proves, I think, Walsh’s point – the script is just the starting place. It is all in the direction, the acting and the other stage crafts that make the play a hit or a miss. The four cast members – Sybil Lines, Jennifer Mendenhall, Nancy Robinette, and Liam Craig – could not have been better.