Waiting mate gets her say in spellbinding ‘Penelope’ at Signature Theatre

In new cabaret-style musical about Odysseus’ long-suffering wife, Jessica Phillips takes on Alex Bechtel’s stunning songs with total mastery.

We’ve been waiting over 2,500 years for Penelope’s side of the story. The heroic wife of the warrior Odysseus, Penelope was ancient Greek mythology’s paragon of fidelity. But Homer’s epic poem did not reveal much else about a woman who spent 20 years waiting for her husband to return from war and more, all the while spurning suitors with a scheme that involved lots of weaving and unweaving.

More recently, authors and playwrights have plumbed Penelope’s life anew. In Margaret Atwood’s 2005 novella The Penelopiad, Penelope recalls events of the Odyssey from her perch in Hades. A musical comedy version of her life was staged in New York in 2022. Now, Penelope, with music and lyrics by Alex Bechtel and book by Bechtel, Grace McLean, and Eva Steinmetz, has added another take on our imagining of Odysseus’ long-suffering wife. This one-woman musical theater piece, directed by Steinmetz at Signature Theatre, is simply spellbinding.

Jessica Phillips in ‘Penelope.’ Photo by Daniel Rader.

The gifted singer and actress Jessica Phillips takes on Bechtel’s stunning songs with total mastery. In “Penelope,” she draws a quick, vivid picture of her lonely life behind the castle walls while she watches for Odysseus’ ship to return. Trapped by her identity as a wife and mother, she has no real future other than as the mate to a warrior who has taken an extra decade to meander home after winning a war. In the jazzy “Drunk Iliad,” she pours herself a generous glass of bourbon and slinks around the stage, telling us her backstory and riffing hilariously about the hopeless mélange of suitors who’ve taken up residence outside her bedroom door. The calypso rhythms of “Lose My Mind” plunge us into her lust for physical connection. Has she denied herself a little comfort for far too long? When a mysterious stranger appears among the suitors, she is sorely tempted to find out.

Gradually, Penelope builds agency, yet we know she aches for her husband, and when he finally (not a spoiler — this story is eons old!) does return, she celebrates, tentatively at first, with the achingly beautiful “Us.” But we wonder, after witnessing her increasing self-awareness, whether things will ever truly be the same.

Phillips is accompanied on stage by a superb group of five musicians (piano, strings, and percussion) under the direction of Ben Moss, who also play Bechtel’s haunting interludes, including “A Very Long Wait,” “One by One,” “By the Fire,” and “Night.” Recalling composers like Philip Glass and Steve Reich, Bechtel uses repetitive musical phrases to create hypnotic patterns and underscore Penelope’s lonely quotidian routines.

Paige Hathaway’s scenic design — a series of sensuous waves lit beautifully by Jesse Belsky — amplifies the passage of time where day after day, pink sunrises and golden sunsets play out against an empty sea. Danielle Preston’s costume design is pitch-perfect. Against the repeating scenic and sonic waves, Phillips shimmers in wide blue satiny trousers and a chartreuse wrap-around top. Sensuous as they are, the garments also recall the gorgeous, draped gowns that adorn marble goddesses carved by ancient Greek sculptors.

Jessica Phillips in ‘Penelope.’ Photo by Daniel Rader.

Breaks in the rhythmic nature of this piece are startling and witty. Watch the musicians morph into a Greek Chorus, giving voice to the goddess Athena, who descends (temporarily) through a clever lighting device. While Athena assuages Penelope’s concerns about her son Telemachus, she stays silent on Odysseus, coldly commanding Odysseus’ wife to stay true before soaring back to Mount Olympus.

Bechtel’s Penelope started as a pandemic project. Trapped in Philadelphia, he watched his relationship with a Boston-based romantic partner dissolve, and with it his own hopes and dreams. Penelope’s isolation mirrored his own. A concept album emerged, and with Steinmetz’ and McLean’s collaboration, the musical took shape. Staged in Signature’s intimate ARK Theatre, the cabaret-style performance shines with crystalline beauty, reminding us that some of Western civilization’s most enduring stories can still evoke new truths.

Running Time: 75 minutes with no intermission.

EXTENDED: Penelope plays through April 28, 2024, in the ARK Theatre at Signature Theatre, 4200 Campbell Avenue, Arlington, VA. For tickets ($40–$99), call (703) 820-9771 or purchase online. Information about ticket discounts is available here.

The program for Penelope is here

Closed captions are available via the GalaPro app.

COVID Safety: Masks are always optional but strongly encouraged in the lobby and other public areas of the building. Face masks are required inside the performance spaces on March 19, at 7:30 PM, and on April 7, at 2 PM. Signature’s COVID Safety Measures can be found here.


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