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Theater Review: Two Massively Hilarious Greek Tragedies, One From a Monstrous New Talent

Everybody in the pool: a scene from Penelope.

How’s this for a sign from the gods: Two half-crazed mash-ups of bloody Attic antiquity and modern cultural madness are now playing in New York City, and both of them prominently feature swimming pools. (Clearly, Poseidon is wroth at the sorry state of our filters.) The pair vary wildly in style, approach, and craftsmanship, but I’d highly recommend seeing them both — back-to-back, if possible. It’s an excellent week to contemplate the implosion of civilization, so see the world end as many daffy ways as you can, before the eschatological buzz fades. And see them with a smile: Neither Enda Walsh's Penelope nor Isaac Oliver's Electra in a One Piece is afraid to go off the deep end in pursuit of pop-eyed apocalyptic laughs.

Penelope, imported from Galway’s famed Druid theater company (hothouse for Walsh and Martin McDonagh, among others), begins with four ridiculous men in a drained swimming pool. These are the sorry suitors of Penelope (Olga Werhly, silent but oh-so-present), men who, in a Stoppardian tweak on Homer, know themselves to be doomed: Some dim hope of winning Penelope’s hand remains, but everyone agrees the chances are close to nil. Their approaching executioner, Odysseus himself — who is, for these schmoes, a mythic masculinity beyond a reckoning — seems to be mocking them from afar. He's sent ahead a gift, a gleaming alpha-Dad gas grill that won’t light. (A dead grill in a swimming pool: Do great metaphors for contemporary Western impotence come much flashier than that?) The final four willingly confine themselves to the pool each day, waiting for Penelope to hear their hapless petitions via closed-circuit TV. They’re arrayed by the Ages of Man (revised Millennial edition): Senescent Fitz (Niall Buggy) is lost in his book (The Odyssey, natch); bloated fiftysomething showboat Dunne (Deni Conway) has all the charm of an aging swinger; Quinn (Karl Shiels) is in his furious 40s, sporting a patent-leather Reagan coif and an alarming orange Speedo; and then there’s Burns (Tadhg Murphy), a bearded herbivorous type who wouldn’t look out of place at an Animal Collective concert. “It’s possible for a platonic love to exist between two men,” he cries hopefully, “even in a drained swimming pool, even after all this time living in each other’s stink!” Quinn, their self-appointed leader, violently disagrees: They are “the talking dead,” and only cruelty, ruthlessness, and cheap propagandist theatrics can deliver them — or, at any rate, him.

Walsh, who earlier explored bruising male rituals in The Walworth Farce, turns the peacockery of defeated post–"End of Men" men into bloodsport here — or, if not bloodsport, a damned lively slap fight. He and his director Mikel Murfi only go limp when they get everyone growling in the same key: Shiels’s Quinn and Murphy’s Burns are especially intense — at each other’s throats with such snarling viciousness, Walsh's mordant comedy gets lost in all the flying fur.

On the other hand, no joke is left behind in Electra in a One Piece, the debut play from lively newcomer Isaac Oliver — even the ones that should have been. But Oliver’s Electra isn’t some respectfully calibrated “update”; it’s a great screaming goof, a liberating and heedless mash-up of tossed-off poesy, FunnyorDie.com irreverence, and, every so often, a flash of sincere despair. The burlesque is Oliver's mode here, with more than a dash of South Park: For example, our dithering tween heroine Elle (a funny-spooky Amanda Scot Ellis) gets her advice from a chorus of bedroom pinup posters — Jude Law, Justin Timberlake, Zac Efron. They get their strophe and antistrophe on via jabbering cutout mouths, and we laugh and cringe simultaneously. Surely this gag is too broad to sustain itself? But Oliver and director David Ruttura do sustain it, and similar japes, over and over, paying off the punchlines religiously while maintaining an atmosphere that's somehow ominous, numinous, and hilarious, all at once.

This being a sort of Oresteia, it’s hard to keep up with the body count. The pool guarding the edge of the skein is brimming with chlorine-blue death: mad Greenwich hausfrau Clyt (the spectacular Erika Rolfsrud of Coast of Utopia) has just used it to drown her philandering husband, Non. When Elle captures the grisly scene on web video, the Atreus family spat quickly goes viral. Elle and Clyt become reality celebrities, and the furies of the anonymous Internet commentariat descend and pick sides. Faceless cyber-bullying becomes a fatal force: No justice exists, save the fickle approval of strangers and the instant plebiscite of fame. Page views, ratings, and comments are the Olympians, the Fates, and the Eumenides, all rolled into one. A little broad? You betcha. Does it work? Remarkably, yes — Oliver's impetuous young voice combines Joss Whedon sass with Nicky Silver savagery, and succeeds. “What brought them to you?” asks reality producer Buddy Cox (Michael Brusasco), coaching Elle to seek revenge herself, instead of waiting for her brother, Or (Chris Bannow), to return from Iraq. “Blood, not poems. Blood dries fast. Make more.”
  
But ultimately, it’s Rolfsrud's Clyt who holds this enterprise together. Eyes aflame, timing atomically perfect, she respects the contours of Oliver’s comedy while sinking her claws deeply into the meaty source tragedy beneath. When her simpering Millennial offspring can’t even summon the gumption to slay her properly, Clyt rears up over them. “Your father was a big, dumb, throbbing cock, but he did what he wanted and he didn’t think twice,” she says, evaporating the pool with a glance. “You came here to avenge him. Act like him for once!” To the carnage that follows, there can be only three responses, the ones that Jude, Zac, and Justin open the play with: “Woe.” “Woe!” “Whoa.”

Electra is hardly a perfect work; it waves its frowsy downtown-ness and video-sketch style like a bloody shirt. It really needs a slightly grander production to achieve full strength. But it’s an impressive debut from a monstrous new talent, and proof that depths and shallows can occasionally be found at the same end of the pool.

Photo: Pavel Antonov