Penelope, or How the Odyssey Was Really Written
By: Paulanne Simmons
April 5, 2022: The Trojan war is over after ten long years. The Greeks are victorious and Odysseus, King of Ithaca, wants to go home to his wife, Penelope, and his son, Telemachus. This proves to be no easy task, as the blind poet Homer tells us in the epic Odyssey.
In fact, it will take Odysseus another ten years, after seven years a captive of the goddess Calypso, a visit with the lotus-eaters and an encounter with the witch Circe, to get back to his native shores. In Homer’s hands, this is a great adventure filled with beautiful poetry and meaningful insights into human nature and our battle with fate.
Peter Kellogg (book and lyrics), who did so well with Desperate Measures, and Stephen Weiner (music) see the legend as a source of musical comedy. The result is Penelope, or How the Odyssey Was Really Written, making its premiere at The York Theatre Company. Kellogg and Weiner have created a score filled with pleasant, sometimes clever, pastiches of rock n roll, power ballads, doo wop and even burlesque. What they have not done is find any humor in the basic plot.
As the title makes evident, Kellogg and Weiner are mostly interested in Penelope, who spends her days back in Ithaca longing for her husband and trying to ward off a group of boisterous suiters. Penelope (Britney Nicole Simpson) fabricates letters she insists Odysseus has sent her and reads them to the increasingly skeptical suiters. Her only support comes from the worthy but timid Telemachus (Philippe Arroyo) and Odysseus’s old nurse, Eurycleia, (the excellent Leah Hocking, who produces some of the funniest scenes in the show).
In the absence of a humorous storyline, Kellogg has filled the musical with repetitive schtick. Telemachus, who is afraid of blood, falls in love with Daphne (Maria Wirries), a hog butcher, and faints when ribbons of blood emerge from a slaughtered animal (the pigs are the suitors in masks). Penelope’s would-be husbands are all ridiculously and inexplicably effeminate, especially the most aggressive, Antinous (Cooper Howell). And there are way too many winks and nods to the audience.
The hard-working cast plays every scene, sings every song in frenzied, over-the-top exuberance. But how many times can we laugh at the same routine?
Finally, Kellogg cannot resist the temptation to take himself seriously before ending the show. When Odysseus returns and Penelope realizes he has had a very much enjoyed affair with Calypso while she has been struggling back home, she almost leaves him, but in the end returns as the loving, faithful wife. That’s too bad. If she had actually left, it would have been the first unexpected twist in the show.
Penelope, or How the Odyssey Was Really Written runs through April 24 at The Theater at St. Jean’s, 150 East 76th Street, between Lexington and Third Avenues. Photography: Carol Rosegg