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‘Penelope’ playwright reinvents epic Greek poem

Tracy Letts (left) Yasen Peyankov Scott Jaeck Ian Barford star 'Penelope' running through Feb. 5 2012 Steppenwolf Theatre Chicago. |

Tracy Letts (left), Yasen Peyankov, Scott Jaeck and Ian Barford star in "Penelope," running through Feb. 5, 2012, at the Steppenwolf Theatre in Chicago. | Photo Provided

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† To Feb. 5

† Steppenwolf Theatre, 1650 N. Halsted

† Tickets, $20-$78

† (312) 335-1650;

Enda Walsh is often referred to as an “exciting new Irish playwright.” Actually, he’s not all that new.

The author of nearly 20 plays, Walsh first gained notice for 1996’s “Disco Pigs,” the tragic portrait of two misfit teens. And while his plays haven’t garnered attention in this country like those of Conor McPherson and Martin McDonagh whose works have reached Broadway, Walsh is making inroads with plays that reflect complex Irish storytelling traditions.

Chicago audiences were first introduced to Walsh in 2009 when Ireland’s Druid Theatre performed “The Walworth Farce,” a bizarre, deeply psychological portrait of a father and his two adult sons, at Chicago Shakespeare Theater. That was followed earlier this season with A Red Orchid Theatre staging of “The New Electric Ballroom,” a sort of companion piece this time about three sisters caught in an equally bizarre world.

Steppenwolf Theatre now adds to the list with a staging of “Penelope,” Walsh’s critically acclaimed play that takes a decidedly different look at Homer’s Greek poem, “The Odyssey.”

Out of all the action in the epic 20-year journey of Odysseus’ return home after the Trojan War, Walsh was most intrigued by the suitors, Greek businessmen who unsuccessfully try to seduce the hero’s faithful wife Penelope only to be massacred by the returning hero.

Walsh received a commission from a German theater to write the play around the time Ireland was “imploding” economically and news reports were filled with stories about the men who allegedly ruined the country.

“These men were just despised,” Walsh said in a late-evening conversation from his London home. “I wanted to write about wasted life, so that was the starting point for me to create these suitors who are desperately searching for redemption in the face of death.”

Ian Barford, Yasen Peyankov, Tracy Letts (who just replaced John Mahoney, who exited the show to return to England following the death of his brother) and Scott Jaeck portray the men; Logan Vaughn is the ageless object of their affection, who silently watches the men via video hook-up.

Director Amy Morton says Walsh’s work isn’t easy but “it’s challenging in a good way.”

“His work is very strange,” Morton said. “It’s very poetic but at the same time physically strenuous and sometimes vulgar in a great way.”

The men, outfitted in Speedos, spend their time in a dried-out swimming pool, listening to Herb Alpert music, barbecuing sausages and chatting. Odysseus’ return is imminent; their fate is sealed. Time and supplies are running out and all they have left are words — and one last attempt at winning Penelope with them.

“I think of it as a ‘Survivor’ episode on steroids,” Barford said, laughing. “This is a cutthroat game of survival told through great language filled with humor and pathos.”

Walsh’s plays are born out of a wildly playful, imaginative mind. He says he’s sometimes surprised by what he comes up with and likes to “get out of the way and let the characters go at things.”

“I think I’m much saner than all of these people I write,” Walsh said. “Yet at the same time, I can see so much of me in them. I can see this sort of itchy quality that goes with living my life. This sliding between being incredibly happy and dreadfully depressed the next moment and trying to find some rest in it all.”

Walsh grew up in Dublin where novelist Roddy Doyle was his high school English teacher and introduced him to authors such as Charles Bukowski, Hunter S. Thompson and the Beat Poets. Walsh studied film in college but live performance combined with the Irish love for telling a good story won him over.

“I’ve found a voice in the real world,” said Walsh, who also wrote the screenplay for Steve McQueen’s 2008 film “Hunger.” “I’m in a community of people where I can be really productive and happy.”

And while Walsh is still reaching for Broadway, his latest project is a good bet to achieve that status. He’s written the book for “Once,” a musical based on the critically acclaimed Irish movie that starred musicians Glen Hansard and Marketa Irglova.

“I’ve made many, many shows now but there’s something incredibly powerful about a simple love story,” Walsh said. I hope we’ve done [‘Once’] justice.”

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