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Penelope Study Guide by Sean McNall


Penelope is a groundbreaking musical featuring music and lyrics by Alex Bechtel with a book by Bechtel, Grace Mclean and Eva Steinmetz. Steinmetz also directs. Actor Tatiana Wechsler plays the title character. It reimagines the story of The Odyssey from the perspective of Penelope, Odysseus’ wife. Featuring just one actor and a live band, this intimate production explores themes of love, longing, grief, and the emotional landscape of waiting. It serves as an artistic exploration into the narrative power of musical theater to shed light on marginalized characters.

Penelope began as a writing project for Alex Bechtel at the start of the pandemic. Forced to quarantine from his romantic partner, he found comfort and healing in writing songs from the point of view of Penelope, Odysseus’ waiting wife in Homer’s Odyssey. Penelope is a musical love letter to all those who wait: For someone they love. For something they believe in. And hope that the wait will end well. Penelope is an act of communal healing for audiences to gather and express and release the grief, anger, longing, and pain we have been feeling during this time.

What Makes It Unique?

  • Single Actor: Tatiana Wechsler performs all roles.
  • Live Band: Accompanying the lone actor.
  • Themes: Explores love, longing, grief, and the emotional essence of waiting.
  • Communal Healing: Serves as a therapeutic space for audiences to confront collective emotions.

Introduction: The Odyssey & Penelope

The Odyssey, an ancient Greek epic poem, narrates the adventures of Odysseus as he strives to return to Ithaca following the Trojan War. Penelope, however, retells this well-known story from the viewpoint of Odysseus’ wife, who awaits his return.

Characters in The Odyssey

  • Odysseus: The cunning hero.
  • Penelope: The loyal wife.
  • Telemachus: Odysseus and Penelope’s maturing son.
  • Athena: The goddess who aids Odysseus.
  • Other Figures: Includes gods, goddesses, and mythical creatures like Poseidon, Zeus, and the Cyclops.

The Journey of the Odyssey

  • Trojan War: Odysseus leaves for the Trojan War, which lasts for 10 years.
  • The Voyage Home: Encounters with the Cyclops, Sirens, and other mythical creatures.
  • Arrival in Ithaca: Odysseus returns home and must rid his house of suitors who are vying for Penelope’s hand.

Key Themes

Love and Fidelity

  • Marital Love: Between Penelope and Odysseus.
  • Familial Love: Among Penelope, Odysseus, Telemachus, and Laertes.
  • Divine Love: Relationships between gods and mortals.

The Role of Women

  • Penelope’s Love: Explores the nature and narrative function of Penelope’s love.
  • Love as Power: Discusses how female characters wield love as power.

Conceptual Overview of Penelope

Penelope’s Narrative Perspective

The musical Penelope serves as an alternative lens through which to view the epic The Odyssey, focusing on Penelope’s experience as she waits 20 years for her husband’s return.

Additional Insights

The Crucial Role of Perspective in Storytelling

The Power of Single vs. Multiple Narratives

  • Single Perspective: When a story is narrated from a singular viewpoint, it provides an intimate and focused lens through which the audience can interpret events. However, this single perspective is also a limitation; it often leaves out other angles and interpretations that could add depth and nuance to the narrative.
  • Multiple Perspectives: In contrast, storytelling that employs multiple viewpoints offers a rich, multifaceted experience. It allows for a more nuanced understanding of characters and events, capturing the complexity of the human experience.

Case in Point: A Comparative Look at The Odyssey and Penelope

  • In Homer’s The Odyssey, the narrative is primarily rooted in Odysseus’ experiences. While this focus provides a deep dive into his trials and triumphs, it also narrows the lens, sidelining other important characters like Penelope.
  • Penelope, on the other hand, shifts the narrative spotlight to a character who is often left in the shadows. This shift not only brings fresh insights into Penelope’s character but also recontextualizes the familiar events and challenges of “The Odyssey.” The story becomes richer and more complete when told from multiple angles.

Perspective as a Lens for Social Issues

Understanding Privilege and Marginalization

  • In societal discourse, the perspectives of those with privilege often serve as the default or “normative” viewpoint. This can lead to the marginalization of other perspectives that do not align with this default setting. Such perspectives, although less heard, are equally valid and crucial for a comprehensive understanding of issues.

The Role of Empathy and Inclusivity

  • Actively seeking out and listening to a variety of perspectives not only broadens one’s understanding but also fosters empathy. This is key to arriving at solutions that are equitable and just. When multiple viewpoints are considered, especially those from marginalized communities, policies and actions are more likely to be inclusive and fair.
  • By embracing a multiplicity of perspectives in both storytelling and societal issues, we open the door to deeper understanding, empathy,  and fairness. Whether it’s reimagining a classic tale or addressing contemporary challenges, the role of perspective is not merely additive; it’s transformative.

Rituals in Theater: How Penelope Uses Ritualistic Elements to Connect with the Audience

Ritualistic elements in theater often serve as symbolic actions that bring the audience into a shared emotional or intellectual space. This immersive quality can heighten the audience’s sense of connection with the performance, making the narrative more impactful. In the one-actor musical Penelope, ritual plays a significant role in engaging the audience.

Storytelling as Ritual
In Penelope, storytelling itself is treated as a form of ritual. This not only frames the narrative but also invites the audience to participate actively in the unfolding of the story. As the musical is a love letter to all those who wait for someone or something, the act of sharing this story is a collective acknowledgment of the universal experience of waiting.

Emotional Release
The performance employs ritualistic elements like repetitive musical motifs or symbolic gestures to create an atmosphere where the audience can release pent-up emotions. This allows for a communal emotional experience, where everyone is encouraged to feel and process the themes of grief, anger, love, and longing together.

Setting and Symbols
The stage setup might also have ritualistic elements, such as significant objects or specific lighting that marks different phases of the performance. These elements serve as a visual language that speaks directly to the subconscious, creating a shared emotional landscape.

Audience Participation
Another layer of ritual could come from direct audience interaction. This is especially impactful in a one-actor performance like Penelope, where the relationship between the actor and the audience is already intimate. Inviting the audience to participate in specific moments, perhaps by singing along or repeating a phrase, reinforces the ritualistic nature of the performance.

The use of ritual in Penelope serves to deepen the emotional and intellectual engagement of the audience. By employing ritualistic elements, the show transforms the act of storytelling into a communal experience, enriching the narrative and making the themes of love, longing, and waiting even more poignant.