Penelope may have spent the last few millennia pacing the gloomy halls of Hades, but she still knows how to make an entrance.
In Kelly Thornton's mostly magical production of The Penelopiad, she arrives on stage in the formidable form of Megan Follows in a flood of light and sound and floating upon a carpet of white smoke.
After ironically striking a few of her famous feminine poses from classical sculpture and painting, Penelope delivers the deliciously dry first line Margaret Atwood has given her: "Now that I'm dead, I know everything."
You might say, The Penelopiad, which Atwood transformed from a novella to a play in 2007, is about the destination, not the journey.
Penelope, the long-suffering wife of Odysseus, retells a certain Homeric epic from the perspective of the home front – reliving the 20 years she spent waiting for her hero to return from the Trojan war to Ithaca, a place name she pronounces as if it were a detestable sexually transmitted disease.
While her husband is off on his odyssey, Penelope has to battle boredom, raise her rebellious son Telemachus, and fend off a pack of so-called suitors wanting to put their hands on Odysseus's riches.
What continues to horrify Penelope in the afterlife is what happened on Odysseus's eventual return, however: The suitors were slain, but so were 12 maids who consorted with them.
In Atwood's feminist version of the great myth, the maids were simply playing along as part of a plot by the pragmatic Penelope.
These 12 Ithacan maids are a constant presence in the play – haunting Penelope, but also helping her relate this cautionary tale full of rue for the horrors inflicted upon women in war, a dramatic theme that can be traced back at least to Euripides.
The conceit allows for a baker's dozen of fine female performances. In the supporting cast, Kelli Fox is at the top of the list, simply extraordinary as Odysseus, barrel-chested and bursting with confidence.
Standout Pamela Sinha flits about flirtatiously as Helen, the face that launched a thousand ships – or, in her jealous cousin Penelope's less poetic construction, "that septic bitch." Maev Beaty and Sarah Dodd are hilarious as a pair of endearingly irritating in-laws. As Telemachus, the up-and-coming Bahia Watson gets the posturing of male adolescence perfectly, showing the boy and the man at war within.
With frequently clever choreography from Monica Dottor, Thornton's production is thoughtful and entertaining and appears to be an absolute triumph for much of the first act. The choral sequences are inventively staged with a series of nooses that transform into skipping ropes or are interlaced as if yarn in a giant weaving machine. (The fate of the maids literally looming large?)
When the women move from speaking to singing, however, the result is a little less harmonious – and the accompanying recorded compositions by Suba Sankaran sound synthetic or even cheesy. Here's a production that would have benefited from jumping on the bandwagon of, well, having the cast double as a band.
On opening night, Thornton's production also suffered from uneven pacing. In its premiere at the National Arts Centre and the Royal Shakespeare Company in 2007, The Penelopiad clocked in at about 100 minutes with no intermission; here it runs about 2-1/2 hours with one. It hasn't quite found its flow yet; it feels chunky and, in the second a half, sluggish.
Even Follows's performance – superb in slices – lacks a sense of a complete arc, diminishing the play's full dramatic and emotional impact. Nevertheless, with a cast with this concentration of talent, this premiere of Atwood's play in her hometown still feels like a theatrical event not to be missed.
- Written by Margaret Atwood
- Directed by Kelly Thornton
- Starring Megan Follows
- A Nightwood Theatre production
- At Buddies in Bad Times Theatre in Toronto
The Penelopiad runs until Jan. 29.