Theatre: The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

I had the glorious chance to attend Nightwood Theatre’s adaptation of The Penelopiad on the opening night.

The Penelopiad is a re-telling of Homer’s Odyssey, which, as most of the Western world knows, describes the twenty-year-long adventure of King Odysseus–ten years in the Trojan War and the next ten attempting to return to his kingdom of Ithaca. Odysseus spent most of his travels battling monsters and having sex (first with the goddess Circe, and then, when living with the nymph Calypso for seven years), while back in Ithaca, his wife Penelope wept and prayed and waited.

(From the performance: Odysseus on his travels. Photo Credit: Robert Popkin.)

But eager suitors laid siege to Penelope’s wealth, clamoring that she marry again. Penelope put them off by claiming she needed to weave a shroud for her (not-yet dead) father-in-law; every night, Penelope unraveled her day’s weaving with the help of her twelve maids, who also undertook, at her request, to divert the attention of the odious suitors with food, foot spas, sex and anything else they might demand.

(Penelope and her maids. Photo Credit: Robert Popkin)

Finally, Odysseus returned to Ithaca and killed the pesky suitors, and Penelope, united with her husband, was forever held up as edifying example of womanhood for her patience and fidelity; all was well in Ithaca. Oh, and Odysseus had Penelope’s twelve maids hanged–they’d been sleeping with the suitors, and he couldn’t have that kind of slutty behavior in his kingdom, you know. It was a mass honor killing, mostly on whim.

The Penelopiad,  published in 2005,  is part of the Canongate’s Myths series, which feature re-imaginings of myths by contemporary authors (the most recent is A.S.Byatt’s Ragnarok). Atwood, in essence, gives us the Odyssey from the view of those left behind when the heroes are off chasing glory.  The protagonist Penelope, now dead and wandering around the Asphodel Meadows, tells us about her marriage at fifteen, the birth of her son, and her wait for Odysseus. As she ponders the nature of lust, gender roles in marriage and parenting, and the mythologization of womanhood in the service of men, she warns, “Don’t follow my example.”

(Penelope, played by Megan Follows. Photo Credit: Robert Popkin)

Also wandering amongst the dead are the twelve maids, and their chorus undoes Penelope’s attempts at self-justification or self-pity.

“we are the maids/the ones you killed/the ones you failed
we danced in air/our bare feet twitched/it was not fair
with every goddess, queen, and bitch/from here to there/you scratched your itch
we did much less/than what you did/you judged us bad […]”

The Penelopiad is written in a chatty, thoughtful tone, completely shorn of the rhetorical flourishes that typically accompany myth, and is peppered with audacious epigrams–for instance, the darker grottoes in the Asphodel Meadows are populated by “minor rascals” such as “a pickpocket, a stockbroker, a small-time pimp.” The book has Atwood’s trademark combination of profundity and sly wit, and gallops along at a fine pace, though I did feel that the chapter entitled “The Trial  of Odysseus, as Videotaped by the Maids” said a lot of things that were known already. And an exposition about the significance the number of maids was rather tedious; called “An Anthropology Lecture”, it would no doubt goose-pimple a student of the classics, but as a non-student, it left me unmoved, as lectures tend to do.

So I was very happy to see director Kelly Thornton following William Goldman’s precept, and giving us a Penelopiad devoid of lectures or trials. And it was very good indeed, conveying all the power and wit of Atwood’s vision in a production bursting with flair and energy. Nightwood Theatre is a Toronto-based feminist group, and this play featured an all-woman cast who were required to sing and jump and dance and simulate sex and shed any notions of the body as anything but performance instrument, which they did with utter conviction. The music by Suba Sankaran (whom I know from Autorickshaw, and btw, for those who follow Carnatic music, her dad is Trichy Sankaran), was moving and amusing by turns. Penelope was played by Megan Follows, famous for her Anne of Green Gables, and, in a nice little casting coincidence,  Penelope’s maid Eurycleia was played by Patricia Hamilton, who is Rachel Lynde in Road to Avonlea. I was most beguiled by Kelli Fox, who played Odysseus with a  one-sided, glinting smile that perfectly conveyed his belief in his own (admittedly considerable) cleverness, and in the next breath, played a submissive-shouldered maid. How? How?

With minimal props and no special effects apart from fake smoke, the Penelopiad had the audience for 140 minutes, and we emerged shaken and stirred, outraged on behalf of the characters and yet amused by it all. I was left, at the end, with a huge appreciation for the cleverness of the whole thing–for the original material as well as the sensibility of the adaptation, for the splendid orchestration of the production’s many component parts, and for the ingenuity of the staging. The show runs till Jan. 29th, and tickets are available here. Go on, Torontonians, thrill yourselves.