Penelope: Show Review by Debra Nussbaum Cohen
Women have created and written many things for which men received the public credit. The game Monopoly, for instance, contrary to the tale written on a paper long included with every new game, was created as a cautionary tale by Elizabeth Magie, a staunch anti-capitalist. Mary Sidney, Countess of Pembroke, is believed by some to have written works attributed to William Shakespeare. And Homer’s “The Odyssey?” Some scholars suggest that the tale of Odysseus, king of the Greek city Ithaca, and his decade-long journey home from the 10 yearlong Trojan War, was not written by the poet Homer, to which it has been traditionally credited, but rather by Odysseus’s queen, Penelope.
Hung on the thread of this thin historical possibility, as noted in the program, a delightful new musical, titled “Penelope: Or How the Odyssey Was Really Written,” has been created by Peter Kellogg (book and lyrics) and Stephen Weiner (music). Produced by The York Theater Company, it is playing its world premiere at the Theater at St. James on the Upper East Side.
It tells the story primarily from Penelope’s perspective. Beset by five men known collectively as her suitors, Penelope must contend with their eating and drinking her out of palace and farm as they squat in the palace, waiting for their queen to give up on her husband’s return and agree to make one of them king.
The suitors – mostly played as over-the-top campy gay men – overtly vying more for power than Penelope’s heart periodically and adeptly break into a barbershop quartet (one suitor is an occasional visitor rather than constant presence), beautifully harmonizing a la Frankie Valli and the Four Seasons or The Beach Boys. The suitors are comically played by Cooper Howell, David LaMarr, Jacob Simon, George Slotin and Sean Thompson.
To stave off their pressure, Penelope – beautifully played and sung by Britney Nicole Simpson – reads aloud letters that she claims are from Odysseus, relating his journey homeward and explaining the disasters keeping him away so long. The suitors grow dubious, despite the king’s seal on every scroll. Penelope flaunts a bottle in which one missive appears to have arrived.
But in Act Two huzzah! Odysseus appears, washed up on the beach, clad in rags with flowing long hair. Handsomely played by Ben Jacoby, Odysseus is discovered by his son Telemachus (Philippe Arroyo, in his off Broadway debut), a 20-year-old who never really knew his father before the man left to fight the Trojan War. Telemachus also has the unfortunate quality of fainting at the sight of blood. Which doesn’t deter him from courting Daphne, the local swine slaughterer, who is always smeared with their blood. Maria Wirries’ winsome portrayal of Daphne makes her a convincing love interest. In fact, Odysseus only manages to persuade Telemachus that he is his long-lost father by recalling an early episode of his son fainting at the sight of blood.
Back in the palace, his beautiful curls now shorn, the sexual attraction between Penelope and Odysseus is palpable. When she shows him her missives, he insists that they were written by the blind heroic poet Homer. The musical comedy ends, sadly, with Penelope resigning herself to that inaccurate attribution. A fate shared by many female writers and inventors through history.
“Penelope: Or How The Odyssey Was Really Written” is a classical romp of a musical comedy, and worth seeing for an entertaining good time.
It runs for 2 hours, including a 15 minute intermission, through April 24th. The theater is located at 150 East 76th Street.Tickets for Penelope are $55 to $75 (plus $4 convenience fee). Tickets may be purchased by visiting Ovation tickets at web.ovationtix.com/trs/pr/1092597, or by calling the Box Office at (212) 935-5820, Tuesday-Friday 12:00PM-5:00PM, or via email at [email protected]
Tags: debra nussbaum cohen, Off Broadway musical, penelope, peter kellogg, show, theatre critic, theatre review, york theatre