Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

Theatre Elision
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Kinky Boots, Rope and Much Ado About Nothing

Christine Wade
Photo by Jolie Morehouse Olson
Theatre Elision excels in the presentation of small musicals that offer gentle storytelling made mighty by the intricate harmonizing of beautiful voices. Their current production, Penelope, is a departure in that there are no harmonizing voices, only the singular voice of the company's vocal director, Christine Wade, which turns out to be quite enough. Wade possesses an exquisite voice that she is able modulate along every degree of emotional heft, from a despondent whisper to a full-throated storm. She also has a knack for delivering dialogue, spoken or in song, with an ironic edge, as if cultivating a sense of humor about simmering pain.

The subject of this splendid performance is Penelope of Greek mythology. If your Bullfinch's isn't handy, I'll remind you that Penelope is the wife of Odysseus, left behind in Sparta when her heroic husband goes off to fight the Trojan War–a war prompted by the abduction of a Helen, deemed the most beautiful of all women, which couldn't have been much comfort to Penelope. Once the Spartans (thanks to their famous ruse involving a wooden horse) defeat the Trojans, their survivors return home–all but Odysseus. Fate causes him to lose his way (so claims the myth) and Penelope spends twenty years faithfully awaiting his return. During that time, she raises their son Telemachus (conceived just before Odysseus left) from infancy to manhood and fends off a horde of intolerable suitors camped in her courtyard, waiting for Penelope to give up on Odysseus and chose one of them as her husband.

Alex Bechtel composed twenty-three musical selections for this work, a generous musical offering, albeit several are instrumental, and some are brief intervals. The score has a haunting quality, mostly in a folk-rock vein that ventures into soulful bursts of energy. Bechtel's lyrics contain a heartfelt intelligence, such as "I could wait for you forever if you told me what forever is for." The songs are linked together by a book co-written by Bechtel, Grace McLean, and Eva Steinmetz, that enables Penelope to "dish" with us about her life, placing the songs in context.

Penelope (Ms. Wade) enters wearing an elegant black mid-length dress with a wide belt that subtly summons up visions of ancient empires. Draped above the stage are bolts of white fabric, gracefully twisted in ways that suggest a Grecian gown, or the flutes in an ancient column, while the floor is laden with a collection of different sized oriental rugs. She addresses the audience directly, explaining that she will present her side of what was going on all those years of dutiful, if not always cheerful, waiting.

The feel is of a small cabaret, complete with several bistro tables up front available to audience members. The stage is occupied only by her grand piano and, to one side, a liquor bar. Penelope's ordeal sometimes prompts her to pour herself a drink, and it is easy to see how twenty years of this could cultivate some unhealthy coping mechanisms. Director Rachel Brady uses the opportunities for movement to bring vitality to the show beyond a simple performance of the lovely songs. At one point, Wade joins a couple seated at one of those bistro tables, as if ready to confess a few things that aren't really part of the show.

Two other characters make brief appearances, both performed from her chair behind her instrument by cellist Rae Wasson. She is first Athena, goddess of war and wisdom (an ironic combination), come down from Olympus to offer encouragement to Penelope. The next is a pilgrim Penelope encounters. Wasson playfully delivers these lines, the characters providing Penelope an opportunity to engage in a bit of sarcastic banter. Homer may have wanted us to view Penelope as a dutiful spouse, the ultimate "stay at home mom," but authors Bechtel, McLean and Steinmetz have come to tell us that she has some strong feelings about the state of affairs, and they aren't always pretty.

The songs are performed by an on-stage ensemble of five musicians (keyboard, violin, viola, cello, and drums provide the accompaniment)–here, there are indeed exquisite harmonies, along with Ms. Wade sometimes accompanying herself on a grand piano. They are led by music director Harrison Wade, Ms. Wade's husband. We had already met the charming Mr. Wade, who leads a pre-show Greek mythology trivia game.

Another recent stage work, the non-musical play The Penelopiad, by Margaret Atwood, deals with Penelope's ordeal. It was staged locally by the much-missed Twenty Percent Theatre in fall 2019. However, Atwood's play takes on a far more solemn tone, and her Penelope seen at a historic remove. Its narrative focuses heavily on the dynamics between Penelope, the suitors, and the dozen maids who served her as buffers against the suitors.

Our current Penelope is a very relatable woman who, in spite of everything, has a sense of humor. Her hopes, resentments, desires and disappointments feel much at home in the twenty-first century. Bechtel began work on Penelope during the COVID-19 pandemic, tapping into her sense of isolation from her beloved, and invasion by unwelcome suitors as metaphor for separation from his partner (one in Philadelphia, one in Boston) and the invading microbes. While the shutdown is behind us, the feelings it stirred up linger for many people, and find themselves applicable to the ongoing adjustments to a post-COVID world with Zoom and artificial intelligence making us but closer and more distant from one another.

With Penelope's haunting melodies, beautiful musicianship, and indelible performance by Christine Wade, Theatre Elision once again brings us a show from out of the blue that makes us marvel at the deep pleasure this company provides mounting simple works of theater, modest in scale but abundant in grace, intelligence and talent.

Penelope runs through August 17, 2024, at the Elision Playhouse, 6105 42nd Avenue North, Crystal MN. For tickets and information, please visit

Music and Lyrics: Alex Bechtel; Book: Alex Bechtel, Grace McLean, Eva Steinmetz based on writings in The Odyssey by Homer; Director: Rachel Brady; Music Director: Harrison Wade; Sound Design: Andrea Johnson; Lighting Design and Stage Manager: Laina Grendle.

Cast: Christine Wade (Penelope), Rae Wasson (Athena/Pilgrim).

Musicians: Joshua Dieringer (viola), Cierra Hill (violin-sub), Mary Alice Hutton (violin), Erik Schee (drums), Harrison Wade (piano), Rae Wasson (cello).