Penelope – Or How The Odyssey Was Really Written – Ruinously Camp

Homer never wrote a word of the epic poems attributed to him. To this day, authorship of The Iliad, centered on a ten year siege of Troy by a coalition of Greek kingdoms, and The Odyssey, Odysseus’ ten-year journey home after the war, is debated. Seizing that rarely acknowledged fact, Peter Kellogg suggests that the king of Ithaca’s’ long suffering wife Penelope might, in fact, have concocted the tales and why she secretly did so. It’s a clever, not completely implausible premise and a good frame for comedy.

Suitors: Jason Alexander Simon, David LaMarr, Sean Thompson, George Slotin

Odysseus has been away 20 years without a word. His wife, Penelope (Britney Nicole Simpson – good vocals, facially over expressive), runs the household, estates, and government while raising their only son, Telemachus (Philippe Arroyo – excellent, seemingly ingenuous), with nurse Eurycleia (Leah Hocking – terrific singer, splendid presence). Whew! Over the last seven years, suitors have literally camped out in her house, eating, drinking, and pressing for a spousal choice.

As family heir, Telemachus knows he should rout out the interlopers, but is kept from any attempt by embarrassment over fainting at the sight of blood. Penelope has raised him as best she can but omitted the art of fighting. Desperate, he appeals to butcher/meat supplier Daphne (today, stand-in Bebe Browning – adorable with a fine voice) who knows how to handle blades. Sweet on him, she volunteers to help deal with the issue.

Leah Hocking (Eurycleia, the nurse), Philippe Arroyo (Telemachus), Britney Nicole Simpson (Penelope)

In order to keep the men at bay, the queen writes letters to herself, ostensibly from her husband, each fixed with the royal seal he errantly left behind. These comprise the fantastic tales of The Odyssey. One particularly egotistical suitor, Antinous (Cooper Howell), doesn’t believe their source. He unearths the king’s seal and exposes her.

Penelope concocts a contest to determine her new king. At this point, the disheveled Odysseus (Ben Jacoby – melodious vocal, solid acting) washes up on shore. Unmasked by his son (surprise, you have a son!), he resolves to masquerade as Homer in order to infiltrate proceedings. The competition proceeds. Afterwards, a (well written) feminist challenge is so completely unexpected, it’s startling. Perhaps if Penelope had an earlier song showing these tendencies, it might land better.

Music ranges from harmonized 1950s doo-wop (replete with a Frankie Valli-like tenor) to Broadway songbook, soft rock, and one number verging on gospel. Lyrics are source-knowledgeable and nimble.

Ben Jacoby (Odysseus), Philippe Arroyo (Telemachus); Ben Jacoby, Britney Nicole Simpson (Penelope)

I saw a workshop version of the piece and was curious to observe how things had shaken out, developed. In that iteration, omnipresent suitors were amusing but didn’t go over the top. This group of supposedly masculine Don Juans is directed as flaming queens. Upstaging, unfunny, excessively feminine gestures are beyond cliché to what I’d imagine might be offensive to our gay community. Not a moment of droll credibility survives. At one point, the actors play Daphne’s pigs (nice masks) as ridiculously gay. At another, the men flounce out in bathing suits (and flimsy costume covers) making the stage resemble a RuPaul competition without that good nature.

Suitors: Antinous (Cooper Howell), Mileter (David LaMarr), Bassiano (Jacob Simon), Haius (George Slotin), and Barius (Sean Thompson)

One can only wonder what director Emily Maltby was thinking.

James Morgan’s set is minimal and suitable. Costumes by Lex Liang are attractive and appropriate

Photos by Carol Rosegg

Opening: Cooper Howell, Jason Alexander Simon, David LaMarr, Britney Nicole Simpson, Leah Hocking (top),George Slotin, Sean Thompson, Philippe Arroyo,

The York Theatre Company presents
Penelope – Or How The Odyssey Was Really Written
Book and Lyrics – Peter Kellogg Music – Stephen Weiner
Music Direction & Orchestrations – David Hancock Turner
Directed and Choreographed by Emily Maltby

Theatre at St. Jeans  
150 East 76th Street

Through April 24, 2022

About Alix Cohen (1312 Articles)
Alix Cohen is the recipient of nine New York Press Club Awards for work published on this venue. Her writing history began with poetry, segued into lyrics and took a commercial detour while holding executive positions in product development, merchandising, and design. A cultural sponge, she now turns her diverse personal and professional background to authoring pieces about culture/the arts with particular interest in artists/performers and entrepreneurs. Theater, music, art/design are lifelong areas of study and passion. She is a voting member of Drama Desk and Drama League. Alix’s professional experience in women’s fashion fuels writing in that area. Besides Woman Around Town, the journalist writes for Cabaret Scenes, Broadway World, and Theater Pizzazz. Additional pieces have been published by The New York Post, The National Observer’s Playground Magazine, Pasadena Magazine, Times Square Chronicles, and ifashionnetwork. She lives in Manhattan. Of course.