The stage production of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad is a stunning display of female talent. Adapted from Atwood’s 2005 novella of the same name, the play is an irreverent commentary on gender and class. Running at the Buddies in Bad Times Theatre until January 29, this Nightwood Theatre offering does justice to a truly great Canadian work.
The play is structured like a Greek tragedy — the protagonist weaves her story through a series of monologues, while the chorus provides commentary. In ancient Greece, these parts would have certainly been played by men. However, The Penelopiad gives a voice to the marginalized characters of Greek mythology — the women.
Told from the perspective of Penelope, wife of the Trojan War hero Odysseus, and her 12 murdered maids, The Penelopiad shines a spotlight on the suffering of women during the turmoil of the war.
The first act of the play is based on The Illiad, explaining the events prior to and during the Trojan War from Penelope’s point of view. The audience comes to sympathize with Penelope, who has little control over her own life and who is constantly overshadowed by her beautiful cousin, Helen.
The second act of the play, following The Odyssey, is considerably darker than the first. In Odysseus’ absence, Penelope’s home is overrun with unwanted suitors, and her attempts to raise her own son, Telemachus, results in sheer defiance. Penelope’s only comfort is the company of her 12 faithful maids who sacrifice everything in order to save their mistress. The return of Odysseus is a gruesome scene, one that underlines the injustice of the voicelessness of women.
Overall, the all-female cast delivers a solid performance, doing double duty as both male and female characters. Megan Follows is astounding as Queen Penelope, deftly delivering monologues that are simultaneously witty and moving, while Kelli Fox’s Odysseus is convincingly scheming and captivating. Pat Hamilton’s Eurycleia is delightfully gruff, and Pamela Sinha plays the vacuous Helen to perfection.
Director Kelly Thornton’s staging is nothing short of amazing. Although the set itself is basically bare, the stage comes alive through the use of the actresses’ own bodies as props. The choreography is strong and does not seem out of place between the monologues.
Penelope claims at the opening of the play, “Now that I’m dead, I know everything.” However, if there is one thing that the audience learns through Penelope’s story, it is that even the dead are accountable for their mistakes.