“Penelope,” a New Play Written and Performed by Ellen McLaughlin, Will Premiere at PlayMakers Rep

"Penelope" playwright and performer Ellen McLaughlin will share the stage with a string quartet (PRC photo by Andrea Akin)
"Penelope" playwright and performer Ellen McLaughlin will share the stage with a string quartet (PRC photo by Andrea Akin)
"Penelope" playwright and performer Ellen McLaughlin will share the stage with a string quartet (PRC photo by Andrea Akin)
"Penelope" playwright and performer Ellen McLaughlin will share the stage with a string quartet (PRC photo by Andrea Akin)

PlayMakers Repertory Company will present the world premiere of Penelope, a new one-woman show written and performed by Ellen McLaughlin and directed by Lisa Rothe, with music composed by Sarah Kirkland Snider for an onstage string quartet(!), on April 25-29 in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Dramatic Art. Penelope is the final production of UNC’s professional-theater-in-residence’s 2011-12 PRC2 second-stage series, whose performances are always followed by a talkback with selected cast and crew and experts addressing issues raised during the performance.

“I was asked by the theater at the Getty Villa back in 2006 to come up with a play for their theater — something small, taking advantage of my abilities as an actor and as a writer,” recalls playwright and performer Ellen McLaughlin. “They only stipulated that it have a Greek flavor — this was after all for theater associated with the antiquities museum.”

McLaughlin notes, “I have spent a great deal of my career working with classical sources, and that’s why they tapped me for the project. They suggested that I try compiling a performance piece in which I could act, doing something like a cycle through various Greek figures — Clytemnestra to Phaedra to Electra, etc.

“But I had the idea of writing something related to The Odyssey, based on a notion that has circulated for many years in classical scholarship (people like Joseph Campbell, Robert Graves, and Samuel Butler) to the effect that The Odyssey was written by a woman,” explains McLaughlin. “It’s an intriguing idea, something that explains how very different in structure it is from, say, The Iliad, which is a much more straight-forwardly linear work, and how much women matter in The Odyssey.”

She claims, “Every single lesson Odysseus learns — and there are several — he learns from a female. Every revelation he makes — and every act of crucial mercy in the book — is directly related to a female.

“I wanted to find a way to explore that idea,” says McLaughlin, “and I decided to ask my friend, the composer Sarah Kirkland Snider, to collaborate on a new piece, perhaps a song cycle, based on the female figures in The Odyssey.

“But then,” McLaughlin says, “I had the idea of bringing in another aspect of the book that I’ve always found fascinating — the way that it can be read as a kind of ancient guidebook to the after-effects of the trauma of war — an ancient version of PTSD [post-traumatic stress disorder], which, after all, has been with us as long as wars have, just under different names. There is a reason, in other words, that it takes Odysseus 10 years to get home.”          McLaughlin says, “The long journey from the battlefield is psychological and spiritual as much as it’s an adventure tale. And the ending is extremely ambivalent. There is a sense that the cycle of violence is even then not quite done with him, his journey never really over.

“The story becomes terribly resonant as we look at all of our own veterans returning now, or trying to, to homes they can’t ever quite settle into again, knowing what they now know about themselves and the world,” says Ellen McLaughlin. “You can see it too in the agony of the spouses who try to welcome them back and then are bewildered by the changed strangers their returning veterans have become.

“So, the piece became a monologue told by the ex-wife of a veteran who comes home to the house they once shared,” says McLaughlin. “He is completely traumatized by his experience of a modern war, and is suffering from a brain injury that’s given him amnesia. The songs thread throughout the monologue as she tries to understand his condition by reading him The Odyssey.”

Ellen McLaughlin recalls, “I wrote the first draft of Penelope for [composer] Sarah [Kirkland Snider] in the summer of 2006, and presented it to her at that time, and she began working on the music. [Penelope] has gone through several revisions since then, but none of them particularly radical. I’m still revising it though and, in fact, put in a rewrite this morning, based on [PlayMakers producing artistic director] Joe Haj’s response to the run-through.

Penelope begins, McLaughlin says, with the unexpected return of the title character’s long-absent husband: “Twenty years after divorcing her husband — a serial philanderer and compulsive liar — his ex-wife opens the door to find him on her threshold, traumatized by war and suffering from PTSD — unable to recognize her,” McLaughlin explains.

Penelope remarks, “It had nothing to do with me. It was the house he came back to. There wasn’t a trace of recognition when he looked at me, or even the sense that he ought to know who I was….”

McLaughlin adds, “She takes him in out of a sense of compassion — he’s clearly suffering in some obscure way — and in honor of the man he once was. But the demands on her are profound, and she has her doubts from the very beginning.”

Penelope notes, “That’s when he began his vigil in his armchair, looking out to sea. I sit with him sometimes and watch the horizon with him. I think we’re waiting for him to arrive. Both of us. I think we’re waiting for him to come home.”

“So,” McLaughlin says, “[Penelope] begins reading him The Odyssey, thinking that the book might effect a sort of cure, since it’s a book in which [she says,] ‘a poor, wounded, lying murderer picks his way through the terrible business of his own narrative until, with the help of several females — aspects of his grey-eyed patron goddess Athena — he makes it home, to her, to me, I guess, rechristened as I am. To the wife who’s still waiting in what was once, long ago, his home.’

“As [Penelope] begins reading him certain passages of the book,” McLaughlin says, “she starts to have a strange experience — she finds she can access her husband’s memories directly. She enters completely into his mind as he responds to passages in the book — moments when Odysseus grapples with various horrors, fears, and the insights he gains into his own condition. The woman begins to understand what has made this man she once married into the shattered stranger she took in.

“By the end of the play, as they reach the conclusion of the book,” McLaughlin says, “the modern Odysseus does make some partial return to regaining his former identity, but the play ends in some ambivalence, as does the book, with a sense that there is no easy return to self that will ever be possible.”

Playwright and Performer
Ellen McLaughlin

Director Lisa Rothe

Composer Sarah Kirkland Snider
(photo by Murat Eyuboglu)

Penelope director Lisa Rothe recalls, “In 2006, Ellen [McLaughlin] contacted me, and shared that she was receiving a commission from the Getty for a play with music; and she said she wanted me to direct it. So, I have worked on this piece from the very beginning, when we did the first workshop at the Getty Villa.

“Ellen brought in the initial script and [composer] Sarah [Kirkland Snider] brought in six songs (I think) that she had composed,” says Rothe. “Over the course of two weeks, Sarah composed more songs, as well as some incidental music that played under the Homeric passages. And then a year or so later, we did another workshop at the Gallatin School at NYU, and explored the piece with some more changes to the text and music.”

Rothe adds, “I wanted to direct this play because I love being in the room — collaborating — with Ellen [McLaughlin]. When she asked me to direct the piece, I said ‘Yes’ immediately, even though I had not seen a script! We met in the summer of 1996 when she cast me in the role of Electra in a production of Iphigenia and Other Daughters that she wrote and was directing. And I guess that worked out, because she has asked me to work on many of her plays since then….

“[Penelope] is essentially a one-woman show about a man who has returned from war,” explains Lisa Rothe. “But we never see this man; we just hear about him. So, the story is really about a woman who unexpectedly receives this man (that she once was married to) into her home, and we hear about their communication progress through her reading to him from The Odyssey. So, one of the challenges is finding the right shift in energy and tone to help with the shifting perspectives.

“Another challenge,” Rothe says, “has been finding the right relationship between the character of Penelope and the string quartet [from the Chamber Orchestra of the Triangle: http://www.thecot.org/], since they are on stage with each other. We are still discovering that relationship, exploring ways for them to push and prod each other throughout the telling of the story.”

In addition to playwright Ellen McLaughlin, director Lisa Rothe, and composer Sarah Kirkland Snider, the PlayMakers Repertory Company creative team for Penelope includes producer Joseph Haj, music director Rinde Eckert, production manager Michael Rolleri, scenic designer Mimi Lien, costume designer Adam Dill, lighting designer Mary Louise Geiger, video designer Francesca Talenti, sound designer/engineer Ryan Gastelum, vocal coach John Patrick, movement coach Craig Turner, dramaturg Akiva Fox, and stage manager Charles K. Bayang.

“When sharing ideas with scenic designer Mimi [Lien], we were both interested in the idea of creating a world that could be Penelope’s home, but universal enough to be the home of everywoman, while evoking the feeling of this house on an island, surrounded by the sea,” says director Lisa Rothe. “And also, we needed to create a world that was expansive and fluid enough to contain a string quartet on stage.”

Rothe adds, “… [Lighting designer] Mary Louise [Geiger] and I worked on the workshop at Gallatin, and have spoken about the domestic vs. theatrical nature of this piece and how to tell the story most effectively with lights. The piece frequently shifts perspective — from Penelope to Odysseus and back again — and the lights are a huge element that helps us follow these shifts. We also have the element of video, which helps fill the space with some atmospheric and storytelling touches, and the lights and video need to work hand in hand to move the story along, by telling us where to focus.”

Rothe emphasizes, “This is a woman who is comfortable in her own home by the sea. She is a sensual woman who just months ago had many lovers milling about. But since ‘Odysseus’ has showed up, the lovers have dissipated and she has taken on the task of trying to reach her ex-husband through reading to him from The Odyssey. [Costume designer] Adam Dill has found a wonderful blend of casual yet sensual clothing, which quietly echoes a Greek silhouette, while also making Ellen [McLaughlin] feel comfortable.”

Playwright and performer Ellen McLaughlin adds, “[There is] a delicate balance that needs to be effected between conjuring a house — the specific house by the sea that the veteran returns to — yet leaving the stage evocative and malleable, so that entire worlds can be conjured — all the different places the journey takes both the ancient and the modern Odysseus.

“So, the stage needs to be stark, but beautiful, open and yet specific,” says McLaughlin. “Some of the evocation can be made with video, and much of it is related to the use of light. So, there are challenges for all the designers. But luckily, we have an amazing crew of them.

“And then there’s the matter of having a string quartet on stage,” says McLaughlin. “We need to be able to make room for them, but not let them dominate the space visually ([that’s] another challenge). And as for the music, it isn’t easy material, and one needs a professional and capable group to tackle it in the short time we have to rehearse it. Again, we are fortunate in our terrific players, who have been sensitive and smart, generous in the collaboration. They’ve also been very game about trying unconventional things that classical string quartets don’t generally do.”

McLaughlin says, “My husband, [Penelope music director] Rinde Eckert, a composer and performer, has been working as a consultant on the music, and has been working on ways in which the quartet can keep their theatrical and acoustic presence alive, even when they aren’t playing music. They will be doing some of the sound effects during the spoken sections — bird calls, wave sounds, creaking floorboards, etc., by playing their instruments in unusual ways. They have been enjoying all this, I think, finding it satisfying to have a new relationship to their usual roles as performers.”

PlayMakers Repertory Company presents PENELOPE, written and performed by Ellen McLaughlin, at 7:30 p.m. April 25-28 and 2 and 7:30 p.m. April 29 in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre in the Center for Dramatic Art, 120 Country Club Rd., Chapel Hill, North Carolina 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.

TICKETS: $10-$35, except two FREE tickets per performance for active-duty military personnel, who may buy additional tickets for a 10 percent discount.

BOX OFFICE: 919-962-PLAY or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/.

GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-843-2311, gerdts@email.unc.edu, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/groupsales.aspx.

SHOW: http://playmakersrep.org/penelope.

PRESENTER: http://www.playmakersrep.org/.

BLOG (Page to Stage): http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.

VENUE: http://www.playmakersrep.org/aboutus/kenan.

DIRECTIONS/PARKING: http://www.playmakersrep.org/visitorinfo.


The Playwright/Performer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ellen_McLaughlin (Wikipedia).

The Director: http://www.lisarothe.com/ (official website) and http://www.lisarothe.blogspot.com/ (her blog).

The Composer: http://sarahkirklandsnider.com/ (official website) and http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Sarah_Kirkland_Snider (Wikipedia).

“Penelope” (album): http://penelope-music.com/ (official website).


Robert W. McDowell is editor and publisher of Triangle Theater Review, a FREE weekly e-mail theatrical newsletter that provides more comprehensive, in-depth coverage of Raleigh, Durham, and Chapel Hill theater than all of the other news media combined. This preview is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review.

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By Robert W. McDowell

Robert W. McDowell is a Raleigh, NC-based freelance writer, editor, and critic. He has written theater, film, book, and music previews and reviews for The News & Observer, The Raleigh Times, Spectator Magazine, and Classical Voice of North Carolina, all based in Raleigh. In 1980-91, he covered business, industry, government, and education for (We the People of) North Carolina magazine, published monthly by N.C. Citizens for Business and Industry. In April 2001, McDowell started Robert's Reviews, a FREE weekly e-mail newsletter that provides comprehensive, in-depth coverage of the performing arts in the Research Triangle area of North Carolina, which includes Raleigh, Durham, Chapel Hill, and Carrboro. Triangle Review is the latest-and-greatest version of McDowell's original newsletter. (To start your FREE subscription, e-mail robertm748[at]aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TR in the Subject: line.) From December 1980 until September 2017, McDowell served on the board of directors of The Cinema, Inc., a Raleigh-based nonprofit film society formed in 1966. He currently publishes a weekly list of FREE advance screenings of movies in the Triangle area. (To have your e-mail address added to this FREE list, e-mail robertm748[at]aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE FFL FREE in the Subject: line.) McDowell also co-edited and supervised the production of Jim Valvano's Guide to Great Eating (JTV Enterprises, 1984), a 224-page sports celebrity cookbook; and he served as a fact checker for Valvano: They Gave Me a Lifetime Contract, and Then They Declared Me Dead (Pocket Books, 1991).