— The cast of the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of The Penelopiad. Photo by David Cooper.
Directed by Alberta Theatre Projects’ Vanessa Porteous and starring Meg Roe as Penelope, the Arts Club production of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad is a triumph. Atwood’s stage adaptation of her own fascinating feminist herstory of Odysseus’ wife, Roe’s eloquently straightforward performance, and Porteous’ superb staging add up to a delicious evening of theatre.
In Homer’s Odyssey, the great king Odysseus, having led the Greeks to victory in the decade-long Trojan War, takes another ten years to get home to Ithaca from Troy, experiencing myriad adventures along the way among the Lotus Eaters, Cyclops, Circe, the Sirens, etc. Meanwhile, Odysseus’ wife and queen, Penelope, has been cleverly resisting the entreaties of many suitors, who assume Odysseus to be dead and want his kingdom for themselves. Penelope tells them she must complete a weaving before she can choose which one of them to marry, and every night she secretly unweaves what she has woven during the day. When Odysseus returns in disguise, he kills the suitors, he and son Telemachus hang 12 of Penelope’s treacherous maids who have had sex with the suitors, and finally he reveals himself to his grateful, loving, patient, loyal wife.
In Atwood’s rewriting, Penelope gets to tell her own story, filling in many details left blank in the Homeric version and providing a very different perspective on Odysseus. Penelope also tells the story—and Atwood gives voice to—the maids, who appear on stage as a chorus of 10 actresses, who also play everything from a flock of ducks that save young Penelope from drowning, to male roles such as the suitors and Telemachus (Ming Hudson), as well as other important female characters like Helen of Troy (Laara Sadiq), Penelope’s naiad mother (Megan Leitch), and Odysseus’ family maid, Eurycleia (the excellent Lois Anderson), whose jealousy, in Atwood’s version, becomes the primary catalyst for the maids’ unjust deaths.
In The Penelopiad, Homer’s unnamed maids get named and exonerated. They were Penelope’s loyal allies in her scheme to fool the suitors, and they paid for their loyalty with violent sexual victimization at the hands of the suitors and summary execution at the hands of brutish Odysseus (Colleen Wheeler in another of her patented powerful performances).
At the centre of it all is Meg Roe’s Penelope, narrating her story and the maids’ with wry irony, gentle humour and almost no bitterness. Regally relaxed, Roe looks gorgeous in a low-cut blue gown—a reminder of her maternal heritage, which also comes in handy in the various strategies she bases on her sea-nymph mother’s dictum that she should act like water, letting things flow and offering only a kind of aquatic resistance to trouble.
Roe uses her sweet soprano voice to great effect when she sings to Telemachus, “Daddy went to Troy,” with the maids providing a background chorus of “Hush now ...” Rachel Aberle also does some beautiful solo singing, and Sarah Donald plays lovely violin and cello under the excellent musical direction of Allison Lynch Griffiths with Alessandro Juliani. The other maids so far unmentioned are Dawn Petten, Lopa Sircar and Quelemia Sparrow.
Porteous’ fluid direction is given wonderful visual dimension by Deitra Kalyn’s costumes, both Penelope’s elegant gown and the cleverly adaptable outfits worn by the maids; by Denise Clarke’s choral movement design; and especially by Terry Gunvordahl’s shimmering lighting and stunning set. The stage is dominated by many ropes hanging down from the flies. They, of course, foreshadow the hanging of the maids, but they also transform into Penelope’s deceptive weaving and, in a strikingly beautiful image, the boat on which young Odysseus sails his bride Penelope to boring, windy Ithaca, land of goats and mythology, where she will become immortalized in Homeric epic and reborn—in her own voice and person—in Atwood’s remarkable re-vision.