Reeling from heartbreak, and then 'Penelope' showed up
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Reeling from heartbreak, and then 'Penelope' showed up
From left: Eva Steinmetz, who directs “Penelope”; the composer Alex Bechtel; and Tatiana Wechsler, who sings the title role, at the Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival in Garrison, N.Y., on Aug. 24, 2023. The musical, sort of “a pandemic parable,” gives voice to a mythical character in “The Odyssey.” (Tony Cenicola/The New York Times)

by Laura Collins-Hughes

GARRISON, NY.- Composer and lyricist Alex Bechtel didn’t go looking for Penelope, the mythical character in “The Odyssey” famed for her clever weaving and steadfast endurance of long abandonment.

At a low moment in Bechtel’s romantic life, Penelope came to him, inspiring music that developed into a concept album — a breakup album, really, begun in 2020 during the early months of the coronavirus pandemic. Bechtel was at home in Philadelphia, far from his partner in Boston, as their relationship fell apart — and as he wondered, with the nation’s stages shuttered, whether he would ever be able to work in theater again.

The music, then, was also fed by what he called his “terror and confusion and grief and longing for this thing that I have chosen to do with my life.”

“I started writing songs from the point of view of Penelope,” he said. “I never sat down to say, ‘Wouldn’t it be interesting to do an adaptation of “The Odyssey” from her point of view?’ It’s just, I was going through this large experience, and that character was within arm’s reach.”

For the next couple of weeks, on a sandy-floored stage in Garrison, New York, she will blossom into three dimensions. “Penelope,” a delicate, contemporary, unconventional musical that evolved from Bechtel’s aching album of the same name, has a preview Saturday and opens Sunday at Hudson Valley Shakespeare Festival. With five musicians — pianist, percussionist and strings — who function at times as a chorus in the ancient Greek sense, the show has a cast of one, Tatiana Wechsler, who plays Penelope.

“It’s kind of like if she were putting on her own cabaret act,” Wechsler said, “but then she gets stuck in the imaginings.”

Directed in its world premiere by Eva Steinmetz, “Penelope” has a size well suited to the American theater’s lately straitened economics.

That’s coincidental, though. Although Bechtel joked that it’s lucky he “didn’t come out of the pandemic with a 45-person musical,” a solo piece simply seemed right for expressing Penelope’s isolation and loneliness as she waits for her adventuring husband, Odysseus, to return.

“It needed to just be her,” Bechtel said on a cool and rainy August afternoon, fresh from playing the keyboard at a rehearsal down the road from the festival’s tented stage.

‘Showing up’

When Bechtel and Steinmetz talk about the project’s origins, a slight but unmistakable haze of nostalgia sometimes softens their recollections.

“He and I were having what we called weekly office hours,” Steinmetz said, “which was sitting on my porch drinking wine and eating pizza and talking about life and love and politics and art and grief. It was really sweet.”

“Part of that for me,” he said, “processing this thing I was moving through, was asking her opinion on this music that I was trying to construct into an album that had a narrative and a shape and was theatrical in its sort of construct. A lot of the ways that that album moves are because of things she was whispering in my ear.”

“As it grew,” she said, “and we realized that there really was a character here and this really was a story, then office hours became the sort of dream time when we imagined what it would be like to live in a world where we could do live theater again, and where we could turn it into a show, but kind of couldn’t imagine what that world would look like.”

The phrase that Bechtel uses to describe music appearing unbidden in his mind is “showing up,” which is how the album project had begun. What surprised him, after he had sent the tracks into the world, releasing them digitally on Bandcamp, was that new “Penelope” music kept showing up.

“Partly,” he said, “that was the cyclical, unpredicted and nonlinear nature of healing. Like, you can’t just decide you’re done healing from a heartbreak. That’s not how the heart works.”

But hope was also in the mix. As the reopening of theaters started to seem possible, Bechtel had reason to keep writing. He and Steinmetz started shaping the songs into a musical.

To workshop the show, they asked actor and writer Grace McLean — of “Natasha, Pierre & the Great Comet of 1812” and, more recently, “Bad Cinderella” — to play Penelope.

McLean was already a fan of “The Appointment,” the critically embraced off-Broadway abortion musical that Steinmetz and Bechtel made with Alice Yorke and the company Lightning Rod Special. But that show, which juxtaposes the lurid absurdism of imaginary fetuses singing for their lives with the stark realism of pregnant women seeking abortions, would seem to have little overlap with “Penelope.”

Yet, Steinmetz sees a common thread in each musical’s effort to “take a wild and often monstrous myth and expose the everyday humanity at the center of it. In both stories, there’s a person on the periphery, enduring consequences of the myth.”

Penelope’s voice

Bechtel’s long-ago first exposure to “The Odyssey” was an episode of “Wishbone,” the 1990s PBS children’s series where, he explained helpfully, “a dog becomes the lead character of classic tales of literature.” Penelope, however, “was a human woman, as I recall.”

An inauspicious introduction? Maybe. Now, though, he has a long list of volumes that he considers the “works consulted” in the making of “Penelope.” Emily Wilson’s translation of “The Odyssey” is on it, as well as Margaret Atwood’s “The Penelopiad,” Mary Oliver’s “Devotions: Collected Poems” and Annie-B Parson’s “The Choreography of Everyday Life,” a pandemic meditation that considers “The Odyssey.”

The book that spoke powerfully to McLean was Madeline Miller’s novel “Circe,” in which Penelope and her loom figure vividly. McLean borrowed Bechtel’s copy — “He tends to carry all of his little source material books around,” she said by phone — and in it she “saw the influence of this strong, witchy woman that they wanted to invoke in their Penelope.”

If the character was Bechtel and Steinmetz’s when they brought her on, the three of them tailored it to fit McLean, who ultimately wrote the musical’s book with them. Through improvisation, they found what she called “the connective tissue” between the songs. Then professional and personal scheduling conflicts kept her from taking on the role at Hudson Valley Shakespeare.

“But what I’m hearing from Alex and Eva,” McLean said, “is that it’s not necessarily just bespoke to Grace McLean — that it’s translating to Tatiana as well. That makes me feel like we hopefully tapped into something that sounds like Penelope’s voice, not just Grace’s or Alex’s or Eva’s.”

The sound of Penelope’s voice, of course, is open to invention. “The Odyssey,” for one, isn’t much interested in her.

Bechtel, though, was drawn to that empty space where her voice might have been: “The stuff that she didn’t get to say in that poem, and the stuff that she didn’t get to experience in that poem.”

This “Penelope” is all her story — and what he calls “a pandemic parable,” too. She is a woman trapped at home, suffused with longing, and taking the same nature walk too many times a day.

Remember that?

This article originally appeared in The New York Times.

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