Marni Penning became a familiar performer for Cincinnatians in love with classic theater starting in 1994 when the Fahrenheit Theatre Company began producing shows.
I first saw her onstage at Gabriel’s Corner (in a church’s basement space at Sycamore and Liberty streets in Over-the-Rhine) in a production of Shakespeare’s Twelfth Night. I was immediately struck by her ability to render Shakespeare’s blank verse not only understandably, but also downright conversationally. Across six seasons — as Fahrenheit morphed into the Cincinnati Shakespeare Festival in 1997 (the forerunner of today’s Cincinnati Shakespeare Company) — she was the go-to actress for numerous leading roles in classic plays. She even portrayed Hamlet in 1997 (if memory serves, she was a hellacious fencer, too).
Penning came to Cincinnati with several college friends from James Madison University in Harrisonburg, Va. to launch a new theater company. A classmate was part of Ensemble Theatre’s intern company here in Cincinnati; he and other interns decided to create a company with the extra time they had on their hands.
Penning moved on from Cincinnati in 2000 after earning her Actors’ Equity card that year in Paula Vogel’s The Mineola Twins at Dayton’s Human Race Theatre Company, becoming a full-fledged member of the professional actors union. Cincy Shakes was still non-union (it’s now an Equity theater).
“After talking with my family and mentors, I decided to move to New York City to expand my circle of opportunity,” she says via email. “It ended up being the exact right move for me.”
She’s been onstage all over the country since then, doing Shakespeare’s plays, other classic works and new scripts.
“I’ve done film, television, commercial and voiceover work in New York, including roles on All My Children, Guiding Light, Saturday Night Live, Law & Order: SVU, The Sopranos and the film Mona Lisa Smile with Julia Roberts.”
During the 2008 election, she kept busy with a full-time gig in the D.C. area rendering an uncanny impersonation of vice-presidential candidate Sarah Palin.
“In 2009 I moved back to the Washington, D.C. area — where I grew up — and married my wonderful husband John, a wine and cheese buyer for a gourmet food chain,” she says.
She and John have a son who turns 4 in August.
“I took a five-year maternity leave from theater, but recently started back by playing Mae in a critically acclaimed production of Cat on a Hot Tin Roof at Round House Theatre,” she says. (Bethesda’s Round House was Blake Robison’s theater home before he became artistic director at Cincinnati Playhouse in 2012.)
“It was an incredible time to be in Cincinnati,” she says. “The city was so in love with classical art, music and architecture. But there had been no dedicated classical theater. We were in the right place at the right time, and too young to think we could possibly fail. So it worked.
Asked to offer advice for Cincinnati’s theater scene in 2016, Penning says, “It seems like the people in today’s Cincinnati theater community really do a good job of connecting with each other and working together. I hope they never lose sight of the importance of supporting other theater community members.”
She advises them to see all the shows they can and introduce themselves to everyone they meet. Penning was a connector between theaters and other arts organizations during her time in Cincinnati.
“Continuing to strengthen the bond between theaters will ensure the success for the entire community,” she says.
That’s happening regularly these days, with actors from Cincy Shakes performing frequently at Know Theatre, Ensemble Theatre and the Cincinnati Playhouse.
Penning played an invaluable role in building a solid foundation for today’s Cincinnati theater scene — all the while performing miraculously for audiences. It would be great to see her on a local stage again sometime.
CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]