Review: PENELOPE at Signature Theatre

Signature’s production of "Penelope" insists that Odysseus’ wife “has some things she wants to say.” If only she would.

By: Mar. 15, 2024
Review: PENELOPE at Signature Theatre
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The Odyssey is one of the oldest literary pieces in Western tradition – the epic tale of Odysseus’ journey home from the Trojan War has influenced much of modern storytelling, and retellings or interpretations of it are still common today – there’s even a songwriter currently writing a musical version on social media, and Emily Wilson released a new translation just a few years ago, in 2018 (she is the first woman to translate the poem to English). The Odyssey is such a rich, fascinating text, it’s unsurprising that it’s continued to hold our attention for centuries – and also unsurprising to see interpretations making its way to the stage.

Signature Theatre’s production of Penelope seeks to give a voice to one of the heroines of the epic poem: Odysseus’ wife, Penelope. When Odysseus, the king of Ithaca, is called to serve as a general in the Trojan War, Penelope is left with their infant son and the unusual task of running Ithaca in his absence (it was not common for women to do so at the time). When the war ended ten years later and most of the survivors returned home, Odysseus was not among them, but she continued to wait for him for another ten years, fending off an invasion of suitors interested in claiming Odysseus’ fortune, titles, and wife. Penelope, often said to be as clever as the husband who had won Athena’s favor, devised a series of plans to keep her suitors waiting through the decade until Odysseus’ return, including promising to remarry only after she finished weaving a funeral shroud. Each day, she would weave the shroud, and each night, she would unravel it while everyone else slept, only to begin anew each morning.

Such a fascinating figure has managed to capture audiences’ attention throughout the centuries, so it’s more than fitting, especially with our modern lens, to revisit the character in different ways and to explore her further. Signature’s production of Penelope is part play, part concert, as she reflects on her time awaiting Odysseus’ return. The show features nearly two dozen songs, interspersed with short monologues, throughout which Penelope walks the audience through the war and her long wait.

If that last paragraph felt a bit redundant, well, that’s because the play itself is too. Despite attempting to tell Penelope’s story, the same points come back again and again – perhaps it’s fitting, since Penelope was essentially trapped in the same routine for two decades, but it feels less poetic and more like a lack of anything to really say. There’s a bit of a sense that the creators aren’t quite sure what they’re trying to convey to the audience, who this production is really for, and that, sadly, shows itself in the book and lyrics. The book, co-written by Alex Bechtel, Grace McLean, and director Eva Steinmetz, retreads the same ground without ever really delving further into Penelope’s daily life or psyche, and frequently feels meandering; the lyrics, also written by Bechtel, often go for simple or pedantic rhymes, becoming entirely unmemorable as soon as they’re finished. But the technical aspect of the writing isn’t the only issue with it – it also feels woefully lazy and under researched, often getting things wrong or puzzlingly slipping into modernity without ever really committing to a modern take on the character – there are references to candid photos, a fire escape, and French Toast alongside a monologue about Odysseus’ parents gifting them a mirror with domed glass, which would have been far more remarkable at a time closer to the original text. And, in a cardinal sin that occurs in far too many modern pieces, Penelope references wearing a white dress on her wedding day (a tradition started in 19thCentury England by Queen Victoria) and uses the phrase “Lord above” only a few songs after praying to Athena. While this may seem like nitpicking, what it all amounts to is a laziness in the text that seems to either refuse to commit to a fresh modern take (which, honestly, would have been wonderful to see) or invest in accurate research or readings – nearly every translation, for example, agrees Penelope was weaving a burial shroud each day, not a series of murals, as she states in the show.

Review: PENELOPE at Signature Theatre

It’s possible that some of these issues come in the delivery as well as the writing. While Jessica Phillips (Penelope) is a clearly talented actress with a phenomenal singing voice, there’s a clear disconnect between her and the character – perhaps due to the extremely limited rehearsal time she had to prepare for the role (only two weeks). Her movements often felt mechanical, like she was following instructions to step a particular way that didn’t quite fit naturally to her cadence, and the discord unfortunately diminished her performance.

Perhaps my biggest frustration with Penelope can be summed up in a single question: why? It’s really unclear what the purpose of this show is – obstinately, it’s to tell Penelope’s side of The Odyssey, to explore what she did during those long years while her husband was off having his adventures. But this production only superficially touches on each of the many avenues it could have explored: her relationship with Helen, raising Telemachus as a single mother, how she handled running Ithaca in Odysseus’ absence, her clever plans to keep the suitors at bay while she waited for his return. For those who come to this show familiar with the source material, there’s a frustrating emptiness that fails to capture the audience’s attention; for those new to the tale, the production fails to provide as much context as a cursory glance at a Wikipedia page on the subject would. For anyone hoping for a feminist lens or even a modern interpretation on one of Western traditions’ oldest heroines, Penelope falls flat here as well. It honestly feels like Penelope is regulated to being a side character even when she tells the story – even with the focus on her, we learn nothing about her that anyone with passing familiarity with the epic wouldn’t already know, and even her famed cleverness feels disappointingly downplayed. There’s no depth, no exploration of emotion or character, and that hollowness carries over to the show itself.

That missing depth does, thankfully, appear in other creative elements of the show. Penelope is backed up by a quintet of musicians – Ben Moss (piano), Erika Johnson (percussion), Jennifer Rickard (violin), Imelda Tecson Juarez (viola), and Susanna Mendlow (cello) – whose heartfelt performances steal the show. While Bechtel’s lyrics fall flat, his orchestrations, directed by Moss, are stunningly beautiful. Paige Hathaway’s scenic design is also a thing of beauty, particularly when paired with Jesse Belsky’s gorgeous lighting design. Eric Norris’ sound design rounded out the production elements by creating a great balance, particularly in such a small theater set-up.

I really wanted to enjoy Penelope – I think the premise has such wonderful potential to explore the themes that have kept The Odyssey relevant to this day, and how our interpretations of her character have evolved over time. More than anything, Signature’s production feels like a lost opportunity, one that leaves audiences waiting for more.

Penelope plays at the Signature Theatre through April 21st. Performance run time is approximately 75 minutes with no intermission. Information on tickets, accessibility, and discussions can be found on the Signature website.

Photo Credits: Jessica Phillips in Penelope at Signature Theatre. Photos by Daniel Rader.


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