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Reviewed by:
  • The Penelopiad
  • Tina Lambert
The Penelopiad. By Margaret Atwood. Directed by Vanessa Porteous. Martha Cohen Theatre, Alberta Theatre Projects, Calgary, Alberta. 28 September 2010.

Wading through the crunching leaves of a windy Calgary autumn triggered an atypical sentiment following Alberta Theatre Projects' (ATP) production of Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad; far from the comforting nostalgia of autumns past, the scratching leaves in the whistling gale echoed the urgent petition of Penelope and her twelve ill-fated maids, their whispers from Hades mistaken by our living ears "for breezes rustling the dry reeds, for bats at twilight, for bad dreams." These are the voices of the twelve maids ordered to death by Odysseus upon his return to Ithaca after a twenty-year absence during which his wife Penelope dissuaded a multitude of suitors threatening to take the kingdom by force. The maids were silenced, hanged by their necks in a row, deemed polluted for their involvement with the suitors. In Atwood's play, adapted from her 2005 novel The Penelopiad, the maids call for justice, refusing to remain footnotes to the myth as recounted in Homer's Odyssey; and Penelope will no longer allow herself to be part of an "edifying legend," "a stick to beat other women with," instead urging her audience, "Don't follow my example." Penelope's actions, however noble in intention, resulted in the death of the maids who were her confidantes and eyes among the suitors and who sacrificed their bodies to protect the house of Odysseus. At a time of global volatility, The Penelopiad explores themes of enormous relevance: who will speak for those considered collateral damage in a war; who will accept personal responsibility for what they endured; what unchallenged myths allow this dynamic to persist?

Beyond these weighty themes and the wry prose of one of Canada's most iconic writers, what was most momentous about this production was the fact that the actors—eleven in number—were all women. It is rare for women to be represented onstage to this magnitude. The Penelopiad was the opening production of the inaugural season under the leadership of newly appointed artistic director Vanessa Porteous—the first woman to hold this position in ATP's thirty-eight-year history—and she described this production as a "huge coup" due to its enormity. Porteous launched a fundraising campaign called The Penelopiad Circle, imploring women to champion the production financially, stating that this campaign was about "women supporting women in a show about strength and resourcefulness," two characteristics that inspired each scene of Porteous's production.

At the start of the show, ATP's thrust stage, configured to amplify the exchange between audience and actor, was scattered with designer Terry Gunvordahl's white and blue lights, pulsing and shifting subtly, conveying images of water churning and the blossoms of white asphodel rippling in a breeze, and setting the stage for kinesis and transition. Penelope, played by the captivating Meg Roe, revealed that we were with her in Hades, a place of "bonelessness, liplessness, breastlessness," and also timelessness, as her conversation is far more contemporary than the Homeric verse from which she is emancipating herself; her message, accordingly, gains urgency. Hanging above the bare thrust stage, and at greater lengths within the proscenium, where they nearly touched the ground, were rows of thick ropes, creating depth and catching light as the actors meandered through them. The ropes suggested the voyages of ships, the threads Penelope weaves and unweaves each night, and the nooses that await the maids. The world of the play fluidly

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Jamie Konchak as Odysseus and Meg Roe as Penelope in The Penelopiad. (Photo: Trudie Lee Photography.)

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Kathryn Kerbes, Esther Purves-Smith, Vanessa Sabourin, Jamie Konchak, Elinor Holt, Meg Roe, Adrienne Smook, Janelle Cooper, Lindsay Mullan, Allison Lynch, and Denise Clarke (left to right) in The Penelopiad. (Photo: Trudie Lee Photography.)

transformed between locations, and the ropes lent an ethereal fog to the world as each movement by an actor caused a ripple effect.

Atwood subverts the authority of the myth and reclaims Penelope's legend as contemporary...


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