photo by Tim Fuller
From left, Joseph McGrath as Fitz, Ryan Parker Knox as Dunne, Matt Bowdren as Quinn and, center top, Grace Kirkpatrick as Penelope

Everything is metaphor in the Rogue Theatre's mind-stretching new production “Penelope” by Irish playwright Enda Walsh. It takes awhile to get the drift of it, but you will come away feeling smarter.

Walsh's play is an exercise in absurdist theater. A 90-minute study of macho maneuvering loosely based upon the quandary in Ulysses' mythology when many men pursued Penelope, the wife of Ulysses, while she faithfully waited 20 years for his return from war.

True to the absurdist code, everything on stage could mean something else – or maybe nothing at all, such as having his play take place in the deep end of an empty swimming pool decked out with tattered aluminum lounge chairs, a large barbecue, many bottles of whiskey, some exercise equipment and a radio that only plays “Spanish Flea” by Herb Alpert.

Still...pointless decadence could not be more deftly implied.

There is no plot to speak of in “Penelope,” and lots of moments seem to be nothing but long strings of non sequitur nonsense. Think of it as something of a cross between “Waiting For Godot” and “Alice in Wonderland.”

But here's the thing, not having to follow a plot, figure out who-dun-it, watch out for red herring, or wonder if the end justifies the means can be a very freeing experience.

As one person has anonymously observed, “Abstract art can mean anything you need it to mean. Abstract art will never let you down.”

Clearly, this exceptionally precise production directed with touching empathy by Christopher Johnson is a long way from Thornton Wilder's “Our Town.”

For sure, “Penelope” doesn't go down easy. It is full of chaos and quirk. As well as philosophy about the meaning of life, along with questions about the nutritional value of being true to oneself.

Lovers of conventional productions may not be convinced, but attendance is mandatory for everyone who complains that Tucson theater companies play it too safe.

More easily appreciated is Walsh's language, wondrously rich and giddy with an emotional recklessness that will take your breath away. Imagine abstract paintings that are full of vivid colors.

The play's structure begins with four men of varying ages and temperaments, staying in the empty pool to compete for the attention of Penelope (Grace Kirkpatrick). She never speaks but is often seen looking down on them from the top edge of the pool.

The man that she picks will be saved from certain death, at least until Ulysses gets back. The four have been at this competition for awhile, and their urgency is rising. for time is running out and Ulysses could return at any minute.

In true ensemble style, each of the actors catches a different shade of desperation. Matt Bowdren looking quite fit in his bright red Speedo as Quinn, the athlete. Ryan Parker Knox is Dunne, making the biggest splash with his over-the-top dedication to excess.

Hoping his superior intellect will be the winning weapon is Joseph McGrath as Fitz, reading a paperback edition of something by Homer while the others waste their energy showing off.

But the sleeper is young Eric Du as Burns, who spends most of the play acting subservient to the others. Through the course of play, each of the men gives a go-for-broke speech to get Penelope's attention. With fatal arrogance they push Burns' speech to the end of the line.

And then, just like it says in the Holy Bible, “The last will be first.”

“Penelope” continues through March 19 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays, 2 p.m. Sundays, at The Rogue Theatre, 300 E. University Blvd. Also Saturday matinees at 2 p.m. March 11 and 19

Tickets are $35; student rush $15, begins 15 minutes before curtain, when available. For details and reservations, 551-2053, or visit theroguetheatre.org


photo by Ryan Phillips Fagan

Adam Denoyer, Rhonda Hall Quist and Carlisle Ellis pick their favorite sweeties in "The Cripple of Inishmaan."

That title, “The Cripple of Inishmaan” by Martin McDonagh, does have an ominous sound to it. Though the play premiered in 1997 (when the playwright was 27), it is set in 1934 on a remote Irish island among people of extreme poverty.

While it is true these people couldn't be more penniless, they are filled with a defiantly feisty spirit. It is a defense mechanism kind of like how we accept that a keen sense of humor is the weapon of choice among Jews during dark times.

Among these clannish Irish islanders their verbal weapon is insults. There is no situation so dire that it can't be lightened by a particularly keen and cutting remark.

Delightfully enough, “Inishmaan” director Amy Almquist at Live Theatre Workshop is keen to present these cloistered folk in all their deep-seated determination to deny reality and make virtually everything more gloriously incendiary than we ever dreamed possible.

Watching this finely-tuned production we can appreciate the playwright's insight into the true nature of these people, left by birth to live out their lives far away from any path of progress.

The most touching of these is young Helen (Brie Zepeda), a bright and beautiful teen stuck out here on the far edge of Galway Bay with no chance to meet any man with a future. No wonder she is so angry.

Every day she gets a little older, more keenly realizing that if something doesn't happen soon she could end up just like her kindly but awfully dowdy spinster aunties, Eileen (Carlisle Ellis) and Kate (Rhonda Hallquist).

The cripple in question is Billy (Gino Cocchi, making his LTW debut). An arm and leg on one side of his body won't work but his mind is brilliant. He and Helen are about the same age. Like Helen, he clearly sees that his future on this sad dot of land is equally hopeless.

A cast of five additional actors play various island characters that provide the rich flavor created by McDonagh's deeply layered writing.

Most outstanding of these is Patrick Burke as the clever survivor Johnny Pateen. With no phones or newspapers to keep people in touch, Johnny has established himself as the town crier. Every day he visits every home with valuable news items which he clearly announces in the most dramatic way. In return, the villagers give him some food.

Because of Johnny's unique role, he plays a part in just about every Inishmaan's life.

Almquist has chosen to have all the cast members speak in deep Irish accents. While the accents are sometimes difficult to understand, the actors also apply lots of body language and facial expressions.

The things they say can become rather raw, and quite descriptive. I found it helpful to think of the story as if it was set in a remote holler of Appalachia, where hillbilly types found inspiration in dreaming up the most outrageously imaginative descriptions for ordinary events.

The plot is set on an actual incident in 1934 when noted Hollywood documentary filmmaker Robert Flaherty (“Nanook of the North”) visited the island next door to make a documentary about Irish fishermen.

So rarely do any outsiders visit this area, Billy believes it is his one chance to escape. Using the most clever trickery, he manages to get a boat ride to the movie set and attract Flaherty's attention.

But that's not the story. The story of “The Cripple of Inishmaan” is how Billy's unlikely success affects the islanders we have come to know.

The play runs through March 25, with performances at 7:30 p.m. Thursdays-Saturdays, 3 p.m. Sundays, at Live Theatre Workshop, 5317 E. Speedway Blvd.

Tickets are $20, with discounts available. For details and information, 327-4242, or livetheatreworkshop.org