Into The Deep End With Stan Wojewodski, Jr.
Tonight Undermain opens Enda Walsh’s Penelope at Dallas City Performance Hall, under the direction of Stan Wojewodski, Jr. Penelope is a darkly comic response to Homer’s Odyssey, in which four men in speedos live at the bottom of a drained swimming pool, fighting and ineptly trying to woo the title character. Literary Manager Stephen Foglia met with Wojewodski to discuss the experience of working on the play and some of the unique challenges posed by Walsh’s brilliant text.
Stephen Foglia: Talk to me about the process of choosing Penelope and you coming to it as the director.
Stan Wojewodski, Jr.: As I recall, you guys came to me with it. I certainly knew about Enda and had read his plays. I can’t remember, maybe Undermain had called, maybe after Enda had been announced as a Meadows Prize Winner.
It’s interesting because I don’t know what led to Undermain’s decision to produce the play per se. I had had in the back of my mind – I don’t know if I had ever mentioned this to Bruce, or Kat, or to you — the notion of producing The Walworth Farce and The New Electric Ballroom, which were two plays that I had probably spent more time with. I’d read Penelope, but I hadn’t spent much time with it. But then when I was asked to do it, I said yes pretty much immediately.
SF: Now do you recall from early in the process, even as far back as when you first read it, were there early ideas that you find now in opening week have been supplanted? Any reversals?
SW: Oh yeah, lots of those. But I think my first interaction with the play had to do with the fact that I had an Irish mother and I was raised in an Irish neighborhood. My father was from one of the few Polish families that lived in the neighborhood – that’s how my parents met. So this just sounded a lot like my Irish uncles when I read the play. And being raised in an Irish neighborhood there were certain ways of going at things, traditions, cadences – all of that was kind of there for me, there was no barrier between me and the play, me and the language, and I never for a moment thought that the play could be performed without Irish accents because the rhythms are so Irish.
SF: It’s interesting to me because it’s Irish, but the rhythms are a little subtler than say the heavy Cork dialect of the early work.
SW: It’s poetic. It’s Enda. You know I, yeah –
SF: Even New Electric Ballroom the language is a little colder and more fixed.
SW: Also, I think that there is, in this play, with a character like Dunne you have someone who’s just an outright romantic and given to self-romanticizing. There is all of that. On top of which is just Enda’s great gift for language. And his willingness, and I think this is particularly Irish, at least in my experience of American-Irish culture, the ability to juxtapose tones that ordinarily wouldn’t be cheek-by-jowl, with no stops in-between. It’s like you’re on a train, and you’re racing station to station, and you’re at a farce stop and the next stop is tragedy. And the stop after that might be melodrama. And the next stop is a physical gag, and the next stop might be just rhapsodic and lyrical. This is going to be transcribed, right?
SF: Yeah, that’s my work tomorrow.
SW: It’s not going to be podcasted or anything? [laughs] I realize just now I’m chewing my lunch.
SF: No, don’t worry. So you enter the play with language, and then what do you find after?
SW: From my youngest times as a director I realized – and I thought everybody did – I always hear a play before I see it.
And so, I, which is not to say that then the rehearsal just becomes a dictation of what I hear, but then I’m always in the service of those strategies that will effectively assist an actor to embody the language. Because language is physical. Language is a completely physical experience.
SF: What strategies does Penelope demand?
SW: Well, having said that, those strategies have to do with how the individual actors are doing on a given day, or a given hour, or moment-to-moment. What is it I can provide for this actor? For example, this one day in rehearsal, I got a funny look – not a challenging look, although they’re welcome to challenge me – because I made a comment that I thought the play had something in common with Shaw. Because the arguments are so carefully structured. The arguments among the characters. And that, along with arriving at a point where you can speak as the character, you also have to listen as the character. I mean, you become the character when you can hear the language. When you can hear what other people are saying. Because oftentimes you’re framing your argument…
SF: Off of something they said in the middle…
SW: — Absolutely. And whether it’s lyrically, or rhetorically, or some combination in the case of Penelope, the pattern of your response will follow the pattern of the initial speaker.
SF: And you see that in the first sections of the play, how arguments circle around each other. The sausage argument becomes the mind/body argument, which is then picked up in different ways by each character and finally comes back to…
SW: Right, and we’re also in the presence of a highly intelligent writer. Who has a gift for language, but then beyond just being poetic, or rhetorical, or loquacious, or voluble, or prolix, he then puts that gift to specific use. Very specific use. The play is, I think, beautifully structured.
SF: I did want to talk to you about the structure because the structure is fascinating. It seems like the game of the play, the game these suitors are involved in isn’t even introduced until about a half hour into it.
SF: And then you sort of realize, by the end of the play – I think if you’re attentive you realize that about ninety percent of what’s been going on in the play is a pseudo-competition that’s actually layered on top of the bloody heart of the drama. That has been just hiding under there.
SW: Right, and the characters, I think, each of the characters has to come to terms with an argument that he’s making with himself. As a result of which there is competition among the four remaining men. But until he can come to terms with that internal argument, there’s not going to be any forward progress.
SF: Is that coming to terms, is that what you find the monologues to be about? These monologues take up a lot of the second half of the play.
SW: Absolutely that’s what they’re about. And you know Dunne’s incompetence – his hilariously romantic incompetence – is not ultimately what suggests that Penelope refuses him yet again, but rather his anger. What he refers to later on as his bile. And if you look at the action of the speech where he says “gravity has something to do with it.” He’s talking about his mother, he’s angry about his mother, insulting his mother, comically self-deprecating, and then ultimately he has this vision where at the end of the world there’s love. And he lets his heart lead him. It brings him to the position at that moment where he delivers two of the other three characters. To the point where they can make a decision about what has to be next if love is to survive.
I think that’s what makes the play a comedy in the classical sense. Ultimately life’s enemies are defeated. The love of Penelope and the unseen protagonist of the play…[laughs]
SW: …I mean, the female protagonist is silent. The male protagonist – of the comedy – is absent.
SF: That’s another structural eccentricity, because you would tend to think, within the context of the play, of Burns as your protagonist. And you have this really interesting opening moment between he and Quinn –
SF: — And then these other guys enter, and you don’t really see, except in little flashes, you almost forget that that’s really what’s going on, is those two guys, those two viewpoints colliding.
SW: I might argue…that what I said about the other characters having things to internalize, I might argue that’s also true of Burns. Because in the moment with Quinn at the top of the play, he backs away.
SF: He does.
SW: And not only does he back down from the moment where he says “we need to talk about Murray”, he goes back to being a servant. By choice. And what I’m talking to Greg [ed.: Lush, who plays Burns] about is he doesn’t go back with any resentment. In that moment he is a servant. It’s more like “I’m a servant, I’m a servant, I’m a servant – wait, I’m not a servant – then I’m a servant, I’m a servant, I’m a servant. With no stops in between. Those are full reversals.
SF: He takes on Dunne early.
SW: He takes on Dunne, but he backs down.
SF: Exactly. And do you think there’s any element of, well he’s not ready for Quinn, but Dunne’s a little weaker, and he just might be able to stand up to…
SW: I think the reason that he can’t take Dunne on is that he can’t take himself on. In that moment. And if you were to talk about it in terms of…he can’t even take Dunne on. Let alone Quinn. Dunne who, from the beginning, is a buffoon. I mean, delightfully so.
SF: But if you were a betting man, you would not bet on Dunne to win.
SW: No. And Burns won’t even take him on. He gives up over snack foods.
SF: OK, so I want to ask for you as director, you’ve said the play has on a micro-level these complex Shavian arguments, and strange bathetic drops, and then on a macro-level on top of that this pretty unfamiliar narrative structure that’s built on, you could say several deceptions —
SF: — that’s hiding under what looks like a bunch of guys just busting each other’s balls.
SF: How do you, the director, thread that for the audience. How do you make that a dramatic and clear experience.
SW: Well, we’ll see. [laughs] No. We’ll I’m going to redeliver my earlier argument about developing strategies in advance of and spontaneously in rehearsal that aid and abet this process of embodying a language. Because the theatre for an audience member, what we’re having is an experience of an experience. So the only thing I can do is work as hard as I can, as thoroughly, as passionately to put that experience on stage, so we have an experience of that experience. And you just take it from there on an individual level.
Except that it’s not static. Any good piece of art reads you as much as you’re reading it. That experience will take an inventory of what you bring to it in the moment. Whether this play, this language, whether the experience of it is what the surrealists would call your cup of fur or not.
SF: You talk about the play as a comedy in the classical sense. It’s also on a moment-to-moment basis a very funny play.
SW: Which is not the same thing, I mean there are lots of very funny plays that are not comedies. There are also comedies that aren’t funny at all.
SF: But this is a funny play about very difficult men, twisted men, and their difficult masculine issues. Is the comedy a separate thing from that, or is it central to Enda’s project?
SW: No, I think it’s central. I mean, I’ve said to the actors on occasion that for the play to work as fully as I believe it can, as a company we have to pay the price that Enda paid to write it.
SF: To go to a dark place?
SW: A dark, hilarious place.
SF: I notice it’s been at times an emotional process, in terms of response to the text, in the rehearsals. Is that something you expected? Is that something that makes it easier for you to work with?
SW: It was for me expected and necessary. Because I think it’s necessary, I don’t think it can be labeled easier or harder. It’s the sine qua non of the play. If the guys don’t go to that place, in their effort to embody it…There’s another part of this conversation I want to have about action as the definition of character, as distinct from psychology – [laughing] if you can bear that.
They have found emotional connections, but I’ve been very quick in every instance to tell them that they have to push through it. That arriving in that place is not where the characters are. The characters are on the other side of that. But they have to go through that, it seems to me, to embody the action of the characters.
SF: I notice in rehearsal, a lot of what you do seems to be putting an arrow in front of an actor, pointing it at someone else, and shoving them along that vector.
SW: Yes, asking them to be braver. About what they want. Because that’s the true definition of vulnerability. True vulnerability is saying, “this is who I am, and this is what I want.” As opposed to, [self-pitying] “I don’t know who I am, and this is how I feel.”
SF: If you say what you want, someone can say no to that.
SW: Which makes you really vulnerable.
SF: It’s not a conditional.
SW: Or the means by which you go about getting it prove ineffective. Then you’re a loser. And you’re risking vulnerability that way, too.
SF: I have a couple more questions, I think newcomers to the play are going to notice and wonder about these things. For one, the set is gross.
SF: I mean, you look at it, and you kind of want to vomit.
SF: Why was that important to you and Russell?
SW: Because I think it’s very important to Enda. [laughs] No, I mean, it’s the visual text. That’s the visual manifestation of what their lives are like on a daily basis. These are adult men who for ten years have been more or less living in squalid conditions. Of their own making and choosing. And how perverse their lives have become. They’re not productive. They’re self-indulgent and narcissistic. Of course I don’t talk that way to the actors. You want to hold off making judgments on the characters, but I kind of lead them to that part of the text. You know, “truthfully before your character climbs that ladder, you’re probably going to take a piss in the corner.”
SF: I notice there was a determination made at some point about where precisely their piss bucket would be.
SW: [laughing] Well, I don’t know. We’ll have to see about that.
SF: It’s funny, too, I noticed – the set has essentially two walls, and then a slight return on the other side, but because of the depth of it, the audience might be sensitive to the fact that effectively in the lives of these characters, there are four walls, and they don’t see out of them. There’s a sky above them, but no horizon. They’re in a pit.
SW: Right. Really, really important. At many moments in the play, and certainly in Burns’ last speech, about looking up, and rain, and rain becoming hope. And I have never counted, but it seems to me there are many moments in the play where the characters say, “I look up.” As opposed to sideways. Or out.
SF: Which leads me to my last question, which I know you’ve answered before, but we’re doing this production at City Performance Hall. Why did it have to be in this space?
SW: The physical limitations of Undermain’s space have resulted in wonderfully imaginative productions, and having worked there twice before myself, there’s really lots of interesting questions you get to ask, and the limitations deliver interesting — not just solutions, but there can be really insightful design work done there. But I said, from the earliest moments of working on Penelope, that for this particular play – this is often the case with excellent writing – that a lot of Enda’s imagery is as articulate as his language. I just couldn’t imagine a production in which Penelope isn’t above these four men.
SF: It’s a vertical world.
SW: It’s a vertical world. It just is. I mean if you had put her off to the side and tried to pretend she was above, it doesn’t articulate that.
SF: You’ve added on top of that, the intimacy of closing off the stage, which feels even more vertical, because the audience has to make that eye-line shift up and down, in a way that, if it’s a proscenium, you still perceive it as one space.
SW: As an audience member, the experience that you have of Penelope, when she finally does emerge, is the experience they have of her. You’re below, and she’s above. She’s always been above and removed. And tunes in once in a while to look for something. What, they don’t know.
SF: All right, that’s all I’ve got for now. Thanks for talking to me, Stan.
SW: Thank you. Good luck with the editing.