Yesterday, I betook myself to see PENELOPE, a new and musical understanding of THE ODYSSEY. Ordinarily, I love alternative versions. Imagine, JANE EYRE told by Rochester's ward, Adele. Or Rochester's horse. Imagine AENIED by Dido. LITTLE WOMAN, by Amy March. Or Hannah, the servant.
This was not something I planned. Or even asked anyone to come with. I am weary of asking people and feeling guilty that I am willing to spend a little bit more to see live musical theater. Of course, there are those who won't set foot in a Catholic Church. Or any church, for that reason.
I decided to see what it would be like to just go and get last minute (cheap) tickets. Well, rush tickets are $20. Wow. And, I got a ticket in the C row (excellent). So I'm lonely and have no one with whom to chatter. At least, there is no one for whose entertainment I feel responsible.
The opening song quickly reviews the premise and tells us how the alternative will proceed. Since no one knows if Homer actually existed, why couldn't the Odyssey be based on how Penelope thwarted the suitors for years. Here, instead of weaving her funeral shawls, she weaves stories, fashioned as "letters" from Odysseus, received in bottles or carrier pigeons. We understand her frustration with the suitors, as they abuse her hospitality, contributing nothing to the household, only eating her out of house and home.
I found myself entranced by the first "letter," where Odysseus writes of his escape from the Cyclops. Fleeing in his ship, he has to "avoid both Scylla and Charybdis, steering toward the middle."
Well, here we are in America, with Scylla and Charybdis in the house. One group is a bunch of Anti-Semites, the others are avowed Nazis. That is why I will not pledge allegiance to any American party. Neither is for me, a Jew. I can deal with ant-Semites. But avowed Nazis who refuse to admit they are Nazis? Who go to Nazi fests, chant Nazi slogans, and openly revitalize Jim Crow laws? Remember what I wrote about why Black Lives Matters--because the bell will toll for us soon enough. So Scylla and Charybdis live here, and naught will steer toward the middle and avoid the perils of extremism.
So I do like a show that makes me think. And, it was the best $20 musical I could see on the spur of the moment without taking a bus or train. Other than that remembrance, it was a pretty weak musical. The secondary love story (Telemachus and the swineherdess) was weak and unconvincing. She teaches him how to be a man, and that is enough to overcome his nausea at her smell? The second act dragged and was too much. The first act ended well--Odysseus drags himself up on the Shores of Ithaca and--lights out. The second act--the return of Odysseus, disguised as the blind poet Homer, the recognition of Odysseus by his nurse, the suitor's games--all very well. In fact (although it is a worn trope trite even when the MUSIC MAN debuted) the suitors, chose exile and form a musical group--"Medea, I just met a girl called Medea" and stroll off to port). That should be the end. Instead, the authors decide to continue. Penelope discovers Odysseus has been unfaithful. She seemingly abandons him. The nurse reminds Odysseus of all she did to govern in his absence--collect taxes, run the household, maintain a standing army, negotiate treaties, maintain a public health system and a public school (one of the two funny nods to contemporary life)--and how now he needs to resume this work. Drag, drag, dragon. The life of the warrior is easy, even if it is good to be the king.
But the show can be punched up. After all, Sondheim rewrote the opening number to A FUNNY THING HAPPENED ON THE WAY TO THE FORUM at least three times. It wasn't until the last try that it became "COMEDY, TONIGHT." So, the authors here can punch up the songs, look over the script, add some Gilbert and Sullivan touches (a patter song for Penelope, perhaps, where she sings of collecting taxes, running the household, maintaining a standing army, etc and linking it to contemporary issues in a humourous manner). A ballad for the nurse? On the lines when, "When Odysseus was a little boy, he proved so brave and valiant. He went off to the dark forest, to kill a boar rampart...." It could work. This is the Boston tryout. Good basis. Good bones. Steer toward the middle and punch it up.