From November 9–24, Hart House will host a production of The Penelopiad, based on the novella and theatrical adaption of the same name by Canadian storyteller Margaret Atwood. The story uses a female perspective to deal with themes such as class, feminism, and violence.
The Varsity sat down with Michelle Langille, the show’s director, and Jeanne-Arlette Marie Parson, who plays Anticleia and one of the maids, ahead of their Hart House debuts. They discussed the premise of The Penelopiad, its adaptation, and the relevance of staging an all-female play in today’s political climate.
The Varsity: Could you give us a quick summary of the play?
Michelle Langille: The Penelopiad is essentially a reimagining or re-exploration of Homer’s myth, The Odyssey, so the story of Odysseus. Odysseus had a wife named Penelope, who very, very lightly appears in the story and is sort of seen as this faithful woman who sat around for 20 years while [Odysseus] went off and fought in the Trojan War. He then had all these crazy adventures on the way back to her, and she’s sort of viewed as the most faithful, the most patient woman in that mythological world. So, Margaret Atwood has written a story that basically gives us her side of the events and what happened to her while she was waiting for Odysseus.
TV: Why did you want to be a part of The Penelopiad?
Jeanne-Arlette Parson: I was definitely drawn to [her] imagining of The Odyssey — kind of flipping history and letting our voices be heard, especially in this time and with the theme of sexual violence and rape claims and accusations. I think it’s really important, especially having a full-female cast, to really have our voices be heard and shed light on what’s going on and reflect reality in order to hopefully inspire people to take action and be a part of her story and… what’s going on in today’s society.
ML: I’m really interested in the idea of how we silence women and how women silence other women. It’s coming more and more to the front and forefront, the idea of intersectional feminism, which is that idea that I, as a white woman, can talk about my experience, but there’s always going to be another woman whose experienced not just what I’ve experienced because she’s of her gender, but because of her race, because of her status, because of all of the things that have factored into who she is, which is really a thing that kind of gets pushed to the side sometimes.
TV: The play deals with a lot of mature issues. What message do you want the audience to take away from it?
ML: Action. We’ve talked a lot about how Atwood’s play was written. It continues to gain in relevance, which is exciting for theatre-makers, but it’s sad for the world. We’ve gained more vocabulary around this kind of stuff, around feminism and around equality and around what the dangers are of not listening and not being heard, and then the way that we treat women’s voices.
If we’d done the play six months ago, we wouldn’t have the Kavanaugh experience, but there were other things that were shifting and so, every time this play gets revisited, I think sadly [that] it’s still relevant to the world. Like Penelope says in the script, “I can see that your world is still as dangerous as mine was, way back then. Through eons we still continue to suppress the voices of women.”
JP: I think it also gives light to the women who are complicit in what is going on. Kavanaugh’s wife and people who have that privilege, who can stay silent because they may have had some experiences but because of their status, they don’t have to deal with it if they don’t want to and I think Penelope is kind of a perfect example of that.
When we’re all gone from this earth, [what matters is] what guilt are you left with, what did you do to make this world a better place, what did you do to help someone who was in need, kind of thing.
TV: Was it important to you to do the play right now during the #MeToo era, with Kavanaugh and everything that’s going on?
ML: The pitch had been accepted before the Kavanaugh thing even started. Back in the spring, I knew I was doing the play and I knew why I was intrigued by it, but that’s actually just continued to deepen based on world events changing. I rewrote my director’s notes like six times because every week it was like, ‘Well, I can’t say that now because now it’s moved onto this; this other horrific thing has happened.’ It’s just crazy, depending on where your optimism levels live. It’s wonderful that the play can continue to be relevant and gain in relevance, but the fact of what it stays relevant to is a little depressing.
JP: It’s definitely very taxing on actors and directors because we know these things are still happening — and kind of getting worse, to be honest — in the world. It’s also a collective — almost bravery to be like, ‘Hey guys, we’re putting our emotional selves into this piece of work to show you the reality in maybe a different way, in a way that you might understand’ and hopefully that can inspire people to continue to do the work that needs to be done to help change it.
TV: Can you tell us about the character who you’re playing?
JP: Anticleia is the mother of Odysseus, wife of Laertes, and the mother-in-law of Penelope. She’s also the granddaughter of Hermes, [who] is the trickster god and messenger god, and she’s very cold, especially towards Penelope in the beginning, but I still think she has a caring undertone because she knows the responsibilities [that Penelope is about to have]…she didn’t really have the closest relationship with her son, although she still obviously had the mother’s love for him, and she knows that this will be most likely the same thing that’s going to happen to Penelope. She has very curt little remarks, which are really fun.
All in all, I think her role in the story is to just give the pillars of Odysseus’s life, to show his upbringing, and why he is the way he is, as well as sympathize with Penelope and her story.
TV: How did Margaret Atwood adapt or change her novella for the stage?
ML: The novella is obviously more in-depth and more structured as a trial, [and] I think we’re still holding onto those aspects [in] the play. It’s obviously shorter, but a lot of what’s in the novella is actually in the play. [Atwood] just sort of took the novella and stripped things away to highlight the most dramatic or the most important elements and things that can be staged.
There’s a lot of costume changes and assuming of different characters, so she offers us a lot in terms of the idea of clown satire. I know she [touched] a little on the satire plays of Greek theatre. In terms of it being different, it’s the same but it’s different. I think Atwood tried to pick and choose what she thought could translate the most, from the image world [created her novella] in your mind to what you can physically put on the stage.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.