I must admit that I have never read Homer’s Odyssey, but I love the Coen Brothers’ film adaptation, O Brother, Where Art Thou? (2000). Maybe that sentiment cheapens the structure and framework of PlayMakers Repertory Company’s world-premiere production of playwright and performer Ellen McLaughlin’s vivid and entrancing new work, Penelope, now playing in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre in the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill’s Center for Dramatic Art. McLaughlin’s Penelopeis the story of a modern-day woman whose estranged husband, a man broken and destroyed by war, returns home after a 20 year-absence. But please, let me explain.
Taking something as old as the Greek epic poem The Odyssey (roughly 8th century BC) and repurposing it, keeping the soul of the story intact while adding a new exterior, is no easy task. Adaptations have fallen flat on their face before. But what McLaughlin does with Penelope is really something to be admired. She makes Odysseus’ decade-long participation in the Greek siege of Troy and 10-year-long journey back to Ithaca after the fall of Troy so entirely relevant to today’s audience, and she intertwines Penelope’s story with Homer’s in a virtually seamless play.
McLaughlin also layers into this story beautiful music composed by Sarah Kirkland Snider and gorgeously executed by a string quartet: Matthew Chicurel (viola), Virginia Ewing Hudson (violoncello), Tanya Schreiber (violin), and Claudia Warburg (violin). These four also work as Foley artists at times, adding sound-effect support for McLaughlin’s tale. Theirs are subtle touches that assist the storytelling, creating a more full-bodied world.
After his own 20-year absence, our present-day Penelope’s husband returns home, a broken, lost man wracked with the effects of post-traumatic stress disorder after his involvement in an American war. Penelope describes her former husband as “a stranger with the face of a man I loved.”
Penelope’s story weaves the journey through spoken-word (both lyrical and prose) and song. This fluid use of music, while lovely, seemed to have no real convention. By this I mean, sometimes she sang — and sometimes she didn’t — and there wasn’t clear indication as to why she was singing some sections and not others.
And these are not defined songs, with bridges and choruses, verses and hooks, like in musical theater. In that medium, characters sing because they are unable to express themselves in another way. Here, Penelope seemed to glide in and out of song, simply because she had accompaniment. And that’s not to say the music isn’t integral, or that it’s superfluous to the story, because most of it is incredibly impactful. But, perhaps, some trimming could be done, some consolidation. The show did feel about 15 minutes too long, and I think what excess there is could be cut in order to streamline the piece.
Despite this slight suggestion for improvement, Ellen McLaughlin demonstrated phenomenal talent under Lisa Rothe’s solid direction. This is a drastic change from the last time I saw her on stage — as Kate Kellar in Arthur Miller’s All My Sons, presented in the 2009-10 PlayMakers Rep season. But in Penelope, McLaughlin completely captured my attention and held it through the entire 90 minutes.
Scenic designer Mimi Lien created a large, swooping platform of rich, haphazardly worked-together wood along the entire upstage area. Three big candlelit clear-glass orbs are hoisted high into the air. The feeling in the Elizabeth Price Kenan Theatre is that of a seaside — coastal, but heavy. A lone chair faces upstage, present but unobtrusive. A similarly-styled chair provides a landing pad for Penelope, and it is located next to an opened copy of The Odyssey that she carries with her at times, channeling Odysseus’ periled journey, linking it up with her own, using it for guidance and inspiration, connecting it with the present.
Mary Louise Geiger’s lighting design travels and grounds parts of the story, creating a tension, a weight in the room, that Penelope must, sometimes, wade through. Adam Dill’s costume gave Penelope a distinguished look — she is a refined woman — and Francesca Talenti’s video design provided an incredible backdrop that filled the entire stage with flowing water and flashes of smoke.
The story itself is engaging, at times funny, but more often somber. The close of the piece is chilling in its reflection of truth. It was a moving piece that hopefully will further its growth as it continues to be produced and revisited. Ellen McLaughlin and PlayMakers Repertory Comapny, both, should be commended for creating and fostering new works in the PRC2 second-stage series that need to be told on stage, and Penelope is a wonderful example of that success.
SECOND OPINION: April 24th Chapel Hill, NC Daily Tar Heel preview by Grace Tatter: http://www.dailytarheel.com/index.php/article/2012/04/soldier_copes_with_ptsd_in_play. (Note: To read the April 24th Triangle Theater Review preview by Robert W. McDowell, click https://triangleartsandentertainment.org/2012/04/penelope-a-new-play-written-and-performed-by-ellen-mclaughlin-will-premiere-at-playmakers-rep/.)
PlayMakers Repertory Company presents PENELOPE, written and performed by Ellen McLaughlin, at 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, NC 27514, on the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill campus.
BOX OFFICE: 919-962-PLAY or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/.
GROUP RATES (10+ tickets): 919-843-2311, firstname.lastname@example.org, or http://www.playmakersrep.org/tickets/groupsales.aspx.
VIDEO PREVIEW: http://www.youtube.com/watch?feature=player_embedded&v=grXvtKQi_DQ.
BLOG (Page to Stage): http://playmakersrep.blogspot.com/.
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).
The Odyssey: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odyssey (Wikipedia).
Homer: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Homer (Wikipedia).
Odysseus: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Odysseus (Wikipedia).
Penelope: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Penelope (Wikipedia).
Jesse R. Gephart is a Raleigh, NC actor, director, and theater and music critic. This review is reprinted with permission from Triangle Theater Review. To start your FREE subscription to this newsletter, e-mail RobertM748@aol.com and type SUBSCRIBE TTR in the Subject: line.
To read all of Jesse R. Gephart’s Triangle Theater Review reviews online at Triangle Arts & Entertainment, click https://triangleartsandentertainment.org/author/jesse-r-gephart/.