In her 2005 novel The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood took us on a romp of a retelling of the story of Penelope, the famous wife of the far more famous Odysseus. She gave it a feminist perspective and told the story from the point of view of Penelope and, according to Homer in the Odyssey the twelve servants who betrayed her and were hanged by Odysseus
The novel was turned into a play and was staged at Stratford-upon-Avon, among other places, by the Royal Shakespeare Company and the National Arts Centre of Canada. It is now playing at Hart House Theatre at the University of Toronto.
The play opens with Penelope in Hades telling us her own story as the unattractive daughter of Icarus and a naiad who was won by Odysseus and packed off to marry him at age 15. She gives us background information not included in the Odyssey.
We see her twelve maids who are also in Hades, accuse her of treachery for not speaking up in their defence. You will recall that the suitors who had invaded Odysseus’s palace during his 20 year absence were pressuring Penelope to marry one of them. Her ruse of weaving a shroud for her father-in-law Laertes was helped by the servants who were in cahoots with her.
The servants cavorted with the suitors and maintained the ruse (mostly) but when Odysseus returned he ordered them executed for treachery.
Amanda Cordner as Penelope tells her story in a dramatic and effective manner. She presents Penelope as intelligent, faithful, patient and wily (like her husband) but also smart enough to pretend that she did not recognize him on his return or did not know about his infidelities.
The twelve maids form a chorus and they sing, dance and speak the light, sometimes burlesque verses that Atwood wrote. Some of the singing is humorous, some of it lyrical and some atrocious. They speak in groups of four or all twelve in unison and I find that approach quite annoying. You prick up your ears to follow what they are saying and it amounts to a lot of trouble for very little. There are a number of times when they sounded as if they were cackling.
The cast of thirteen are all women and they play more than a couple of dozen characters. Ellie Posadas is allowed to overact as the beautiful Helen and presents her as a bimbo and a moron. A nice and funny take on the famous slut. Neta J. Rose play the faithful servant Euricleia as an old hag.
The actors who play Odysseus (Arielle Zamora), Icarus (Shannon Dickens), and Antinous (Julia Hussey) come across as female impersonators which is in keeping with the burlesque take on Homer. They are mostly caricatures resembling something from Monty Python.
Director Michelle Langille has to deal with the serious, feminist approach to the story as well as the lighter side of Atwood’s verse.
Penelope has been usually (but by no means always) viewed as the ideal wife, a paragon of virtue, patience, fidelity and intelligence. She was the product of the imagination of men in a strictly patriarchal society. The same society did produce men who created heroic women like Antigone and Lysistrata. So that the feminist point of view is not entirely missing.
This transfer from novel to stage is not always successful but the young actors and production team of Hart House Theatre who are almost all amateurs deserve kudos for the production.
You will get an interesting romp through the world of the Odyssey from a different perspective.
The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood continues until November 24, 2018 at Hart House Theatre, 7 Hart House Circle, Toronto, Ontario.