Review: THE PENELOPIAD (at the Grand Theatre, London, Ont.)

by Lynn on February 3, 2019

in The Passionate Playgoer

At the Grand Theatre, London, Ont.


Written by Margaret Atwood

Directed by Megan Follows

Choreography by Philippa Domville

Set by Charlotte Dean

Costumes by Dana Osborne

Lighting by Bonnie Beecher

Projections by Jamie Nesbitt

Composer/sound by Deanna H. Choi

Cast: Praneet Akilla

Claire Armstrong

Tess Berger

Nadine Bhabha

Ingrid Blekys

Déjah Dixon-Green

Deborah Drakeford

Seana McKenna

Ellora Patnaik

Monice Peter

Siobhan Richardson

A vivid, image filled production thanks to director Megan Follows, beautifully acted lead by Seana McKenna.

The Story.  We all know the story of Odysseus: heroic soldier, goes off to fight in the Trojan War to get Helen back, war rages for 10 years, then takes another 10 years to get back to his wife, the patient Penelope. Yes, 20 years in total, it’s all those distractions, see? The Cyclops, the sirens, the alluring goddesses and minor deities until he finally gets home.

Bless Margaret Atwood for giving Penelope a voice to tell her story. Penelope’s story is deeper, richer in psychological intrigue, more layered in consequence and certainly depicts Penelope as a wily, diplomatic woman. Atwood gives Odysseus short shrift in detailing his travails; the most serious drawback to him is that, in my house at least, he’s stupid. He’s also vain, irresponsible and not too astute.

All the while Penelope, his patient, loyal, loving wife tries to cope with the attitudes of Odysseus’ parents who think Penelope is useless, as does Odysseus’ nurse. Her son Telemachus is a spoiled, entitled brat. And there are the suitors who come knocking, thinking Odysseus is dead—well you would too, right? They are eating her out of house and home and they want her to make a decision about which one of these louts she will marry. She stalls them with the help of her 12 maids, but it ends badly for almost everybody, except of course Odysseus who comes out of this smelling sweet. Sweat?

The Production.  Director Megan Follows played Penelope in the Nightwood production of The Penelopiad in Toronto a few years ago, so she knows the play and Penelope inside and out. As a director Follows has a dazzling sense of image. She and her design team worked to create the sense of floating, misty Hades (the underworld) where Penelope and her maids are since they are now all dead. Charlotte Dean’s set of billowy material gives the sense of other-worldliness. Bonnie Beecher has lit it with that deep underworld gloom. Dana Osborne’s costumes for Penelope (Seana McKenna) are arresting. Initially she is swathed in a gown with a long train that billows out behind her; is long enough to wrap her up and then is unfurled again and becomes a tablecloth at a banquet while still part of Penelope’s costume. Osborne’s costumes for the maids are simple grey. The same actresses play the suitors as well and with a quick costume change of a jacket or tunic over the maids’ clothes they are clearly another character.

Megan Follows has an arresting sense of the visual. At the beginning of the play a twitching body (one of the maids) is slowly lowered down from the flies to the stage. That certainly gets our attention and it foreshadows what will happen to them. No spoiler alert here, we are told enough times they will die.

Follows has created body language for the suitors that is aggressive and muscular. One suitor (Claire Armstrong) likes frightening Telemachus (Tess Benger) by starring him down and then thrusting his body towards him, chin up. Quite effective. There is interesting use of climbing silks ( Siobhan Richardson) in which two silk panels are dropped from the flies and Richardson climbs up and does poses to augment a scene. I’m not quite sure of its usefulness.

And while Follows’ sense of images is arresting, sometimes it’s a bit of overkill. When Penelope is going into labour with Telemachus she lies on her back on a table, her head down towards the audience, her legs spread, bent at the knees facing upstage. Projected on the back wall is an ultrasound image of a foetus pulsing, suggesting it is about to be born. At the same time a character puts her arm between Penelope’s legs and pulls out a long swath of red silk and wraps it up like a swaddled baby and gives it to Penelope. The red silk is so evocative of the blood and gore of birth made elegant by the image and our imagination, why then do we also need an ultrasound image? Overkill, but I do appreciate Follows’ gifts as a director.

And I love Follows’ trust in the audience to suspend our disbelief. There are frequent references to there being 12 maids, yet look closely and you only see 10 actors playing them. In the last scene that twitching, hanged body is lowered down from the flies along with several ropes with nooses ready for the rest of the maids. But look closely again and there are 12 nooses suspended, which is one too many, if one of the maids is already hanging. Follow’s makes us pay attention to such details.

The cast is strong—Praneet Akilla is a boyish, confident Odysseus and the only man in the cast of women (at times he also plays a maid). Leading them all is Seana McKenna as Penelope. Her voice is as clear and musical as fine crystal. She has a sense of nuance and subtlety that captures Penelope’s depth of character and intelligence. A sidelong glance and the smallest gesture speak volumes. When Penelope gives birth to Telemachus she holds him briefly but he is then taken away by Odysseus’ old nurse to be cared for. Penelope watches sadly, gently touching her breast thus illuminating the shattering loss of not being able to nurse her baby. That little gesture is stunning. It’s a performance full of such small, telling moments.

Comment.  I love that Margaret Atwood tells the story from Penelope’s brave, loyal point of view—along with her servants—but it still is a man’s world here. She’s not given credit for keeping the suitors at bay. Odysseus is going to kill the maids (we know this cause it’s foreshadowed at the beginning) and tells Telemachus not to tell his mother because according to Odysseus Penelope can’t keep a secret. Where does he get this from—he hasn’t been home for 20 years! Is this just dumb male intuition when it comes to women. What a fool?  He’s a man and he’s entitled in that society.  Women, wives are meant to serve and wait silently.  Atwood gives us the gulp factor—that no matter how much Penelope valued her maids misinformation resulted in their deaths and she is suffering as a result of it. She’s in Hades. The maids don’t talk to her anymore because they feel she betrayed them. She can’t tell them that she was given a drink by Odysseus’ nurse to put her to sleep. She didn’t get a chance to tell Odysseus the maids were true. Telemachus is as entitled as his father and doesn’t know the truth about the maids because they wouldn’t betray Penelope.

And at the end of the story Penelope is still loyal to Odysseus even though she knows his ways and he’d be off when a new adventure presented itself. But he does keep coming back to her.  Atwood conjures a world where a woman’s life is not her own, where she has to live within the dictates of the men in her life. Atwood does it with humour, seriousness and a sense of the world of ancient Greece and our own modern world.

However, of the people on the crew, there is only one man, the rest are women. Brava.    

The Grand Theatre presents:

Began: Jan. 22, 2019.

Closes: Feb. 9, 2019.

Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes.

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