Review: Penelope, Or How the Odyssey Was Really Written Hands Homer's Pen to the Queen of Ithaca
The new musical comedy by Peter Kellogg and Stephen Weiner makes its world premiere at the York Theatre.
Off-Broadway hits are a rare breed in the world of theater. But book writer and lyricist Peter Kellogg managed to pull one out with Desperate Measures, a spin on Shakespeare's Measure for Measure with cowboys, slapstick, and song. The York Theatre gave that musical (which Kellogg wrote with composer David Friedman) its off-Broadway debut in 2017, followed by several extensions, a commercial run at New World Stages, and a cast album you can enjoy on Spotify.
The York is now taking a chance on Kellogg's next irreverent revamp with Penelope, or How the Odyssey Was Really Written (he partners with composer Stephen Weiner for this one). The two musicals share the same satirical tone, breezy humor, and DIY aesthetic (Auerbach Pollock Friedlander provides the set simple yet garish design), so if you like a spoonful of sugar with your literary culture, Penelope could be an enjoyable way to pass two hours of your evening. I don't, however, get the sense that lightning is striking twice.
Trading Shakespeare's sexual politics for Homer's toxic masculinity, Penelope reframes the Greek epic we all read in high school as a story from the perspective of Odysseus' wife (played by the lovely Britney Nicole Simpson). Instead of a bereft woman forced to spend 20 years raising her son Telemachus on her own and cleverly fending off dozens of lascivious suitors vying to be the new king of Ithaca — she's pretty much the same but with an unearthed talent for spinning a yarn. It turns out Homer is a big story thief and Penelope is the one who really wrote all those fanciful tales about cyclopes and soothsayers and evil goddesses turning men to swine. She puts them in letters signed from her long-lost husband, reads them to her pawing suitors, and delays the obligation to pick a new husband for another day.
It's a fun premise, but one that doesn't seem to have been given much thought beyond its gendered twist. Director and choreographer Emily Maltby helms the production with a sense of play and unfussy theatricality. Unfortunately, a frothed-up premise does not a story make — just as a female protagonist does not feminism make. And Penelope, in its collection of serviceable but altogether unremarkable musical numbers, often miscalculates how to push the right girl power buttons.
Isn't it curious that our empowered title character's "I want" song is about Penelope's desire for her husband to return home to her ("The Man That I Married"), whereas the song she sings about her writing brings her to a sense of peace with her permanent anonymity (the tune, sung beautifully by Simpson, is aptly titled "No One Will Ever Know")? It's a sad day when even our feminist dreamscapes keep women obediently in their stations.
Meanwhile, we have a pig farmer named Daphne (a charming Maria Wirries) playing the iron-stomached alpha to a squeamish Telemachus's beta (Philippe Arroyo does a fine job with the comedy of his distaste for blood). Daphne trains Telemachus in the ways of slaughter and her scrappiness eventually wins his royal heart. It's a fitting B-plot for a reimagined Odyssey that puts the women in charge, but one that seems to be consistent with the rest of the production in its tendency to comedically grasp at the lowest hanging fruit.
The most genuinely enjoyable piece of Penelope is the team of suitors who roam the stage more like overeager house guests outstaying their welcome than violent and rapacious scavengers (Antinous, played by Cooper Howell with foppish, Captain Hook-like villainy, is the one scavenger in the bunch). David LaMarr, Jacob Simon, George Slotin, and Sean Thompson play the core group of these annoying but harmless gents, serenading Penelope as a barbershop quartet that is tickled by their own talent. They do indeed make a stellar singing group, and as they frolic around in their Greek-adjacent tunics (tongue-in-cheek costumes by Lex Liang), you wish Penelope were allowed to participate in more of these whimsical parts of the story instead of being relegated to so much self-serious introspection.
Penelope frequently gets caught in this space between silly spoof and meaningful satire, unsure of whether it wants to be pure diversion or a messenger of enlightenment for its audiences. The result is often a diluted version of both, stuck in a no-man's land of unoriginal comedy and toothless moralizing.
When Odysseus (Ben Jacoby) finally makes his grand return in Act 2, his hero's ending is largely untouched. He steals all the thunder in the 11th hour, ridding Penelope's house of suitors and reclaiming his place in his home, with barely a moment of resistance from his wife (she seems more miffed by his infidelity than his intrusion on her creative pursuits). The authors of Penelope certainly don't have to go the route of Broadway's favorite histo-remix Six and envision a Penelope that leaves her husband, travels the globe, and joins a pop girl group. But if so little about her existing narrative has been changed, it's reasonable to wonder why it was rewritten at all.