Another side of the Trojan War: Margaret Atwood’s “The Penelopiad”

As a kid, I devoured Greek mythology and ‘young adult’ prose versions of Homer’s poems The Iliad and The Odyssey, so I’m somewhat familiar with the Trojan War, Penelope, Odysseus, Helen of Troy, etc.  Nightwood Theatre’s Toronto premiere of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad had its first preview last night at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, and I thought it would be interesting to see it before seeing Alumnae’s The Trojan Women.  Both plays feature some of the same characters, and cover a similar time period.  I was tickled to read in director Kelly Thornton’s program message that “The Penelopiad shines a bright light on the voicelessness of women” – so similar to what The Trojan Women director Alexandra Seay stated at the first read-through (see Nov 7 post)!

What can I tell you about the show?  LOVED IT!!  A stellar cast of 13 women (including Megan Follows as Penelope, Kelli Fox as Penelope’s husband Odysseus, Patricia Hamilton as the faithful retainer Eurycleia, and Tara Rosling as Penelope’s naiad mother) most playing multiple roles – male and female.  An all-female lineup of designers and crew who created a stunning synergy of spectacle, sound and atmosphere.  Set and costume designer Denyse Karn gave us a mostly bare stage, except for moveable blocks that formed stairs, bed platforms, tables, etc.  The dungeon effect (done mostly with lighting – designed by Kimberly Purtell) at the top of Act Two was creepily effective, complete with faint sounds of dripping water that echoed a sound effect at the start of the show (sound designer Suba Sankaran).  The actors playing Penelope’s 12 maids wore identical floaty nude-colour knee-length dresses.  Follows’ witty, self-deprecating Penelope had a gorgeous one-shouldered long white Greek chiton, accented with fabric flowers.  Pamela Sinha doubled as the famous beauty Helen, sporting a dramatic flowing scarlet robe.  Her cousin Penelope refers to her as a “septic bitch… poison on legs”.  Hmmm, no love lost there.

After overcoming a dangerous childhood  (her father tried to drown her as a baby, but she’s saved by a flock of ducks in a very cute scene – earning her the nickname “Ducky”), Penelope grows up to marry the soldier Odysseus at age 15.  Her wedding dress – which made me think of some avant-garde Japanese designer creation, with its huge standup collar and box-shaped headdress – was amazing!  And the wedding night, with wily Odysseus counseling Penelope on how to satisfy the curious palace hangers-on listening at the door, made me snort with laughter.  O and P have a son, Telemachus, and a quiet life in Ithaca, but then a handsome prince of Troy named Paris (a silent cameo by Tara Rosling) abducts Helen, and her ineffective husband Menelaus (Sophia Walker) calls on all her previous suitors to help him rescue her.  “We swore an oath,” Odysseus explains to Penelope about why he must go.  When pressed, he admits the oath was his idea in the first place!  And thus begins the Trojan War, and Odysseus’ 20-year absence, leaving Penelope to fend for herself and use ingenious delaying tactics to prevent a marriage to one of her many suitors…

So much more, but I don’t want to spoil it for you.  I will say that the first act is much lighter than second – we know from the start that it won’t end happily.

A few random things that I loved:  the way Helen and Penelope’s robes were effortlessly transformed into tablecloths or bed sheets at various times.  While the actors were still wearing them, no less!  How the maids formed themselves into chairs and a table for a dinner scene with the newlyweds and in-laws (Maev Beaty was hilarious as Odysseus’ inarticulate, goatskin-wearing father Laertes.  His mumble of “pruning” just before he exited one scene raised a guffaw in the audience.  Sarah Dodd played Odysseus’ formidable mother Anticleia).  Penelope’s gentle song to her little son, “Daddy Went To Troy” – when the maids chime in with harmonies, it raised goosebumps.  The song is reprised (with nastier lyrics) by Penelope’s drunken suitors in Act Two.  The suitors’ costumes – those giant horns on their shoulders signifying what – horniness?  Cuckoldry?  The weaving  dance that Penelope and the maids do with the ropes….  I could go on!

Folks, The Penelopiad is just amazing.  Catch it quickly – it only runs to January 29, and with power names like Atwood, Thornton and Follows attached, the run will probably sell out.  Here’s the official blurb from Nightwood:

 Nightwood Theatre presents the The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

Directed by Kelly Thornton

Starring Megan Follows

“Now that I’m dead, I know everything.” So begins The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood’s daring response to Homer’s The Odyssey – a provocative new look at a woman’s longing, lust and culpability. Destined to spend eternity in Hades, Penelope recounts her life’s story and the murder of her twelve handmaidens by her vengeful husband Odysseus. Atwood’s acerbic wit brings one of history’s most powerful myths to the contemporary imagination.

January 10-29, 2012 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander St.

(south of Wellesley, just east of Yonge)

Tue – Sat at 8:00pm
Sat & Sun Matinees at 2:00pm
Wed Matinee at 1:30pm

Tickets: 416.975.8555 or www.nightwoodtheatre.net

Previews $28
Weekdays/Matinees $40
Friday/Saturday $46
Student Matinee $15
Student pricing (except Wed matinee)   $22
Artsworker   $22

And don’t forget: The Trojan Women opens at Alumnae Theatre on January 20!

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Filed under 2011/12 season, The Trojan Women

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