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by Jane Enkin, Feb 25, 2013

The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood

RMTC in The Tom Hendry Warehouse Theatre

February 21-March 9


Director Tracey Flye

Set and Costume Design Tamara Marie Kucheran

Lighting Design Hugh Conacher



The Penelopiad is a terrific, entertaining and thought-provoking play. Atwood interprets characters and events from Homer's Odyssey, retelling the story in the voice of Penelope, the loyal, waiting wife of the wandering hero Odysseus. In the RMTC production, Atwood's intertwined emotional and political messages are supported by beautiful music, evocative lighting and set design, skillful direction and moving performances.


This work provides the opportunity to see eleven fine Winnipeg women actors create fascinating individual characters and work together in ways inspired by the traditional Greek chorus. Several of them I had enjoyed already in other shows, and several were new to me, performers I look forward to watching again.


Penelope is played by Jennifer Lyon. This extraordinary, graceful actor is called on to be both the storyteller of the legend and the main character of her story. She easily introduces us to her fifteen year old self, wary yet passionate, and then lets us see, as she grows and matures, that her youthful spirit has not been lost. In a way that is crucial to Atwood's interpretation of Homer, she is always a noblewoman in her bearing and way of speaking, caring and yet never one with the people she commands. Penelope must always have her wits about her, and always keeps her cool in public. In scenes where she is in private, Lyon's rich voice and dramatic movement draw us in to her overwhelming experiences.


Kimberley Rampersad has the fun of playing Helen, the most attractive woman in the world. She simply assumes that men will be captivated by her, and thrives in the spotlight. Lyon has a great time showing us how much Penelope hates this attention-stealing cousin. Sharon Bajer is chilling as Odysseus' adoring and manipulative nurse, her passions occasionally flaring out from her cloak of servility.


The chorus members take on all the male roles in the story. As kings, sailors and Penelope's rude suitors, they're great to watch, but the characters are fairly straightforward. Sarah Constible as Odysseus and Gwendolyn Collins as his son, Telemachus, play more nuanced characters. With both of these performances, I let go of thinking of them as women portraying men and simply appreciated the men they were on stage.


Constible's Odysseus is like quicksilver, adapting to fit any situation. He is a seductive lover, a ruthless fighter, a trickster and a powerful and decisive leader. Penelope's mother, played sinuously by Paula Potosky, secretly chooses him as her daughter's bridegroom and drugs his competitors to make sure he wins her hand. He struts his way through the contest and calmly ignores Penelope at their wedding feast. When they are alone together, however, his charm and his storytelling take over, and I found myself completely taken in by his smile, responding along with Penelope to this compelling man. Love and violence are constantly linked in the dialogue Atwood wrote for Odysseus, so the character

Constible creates is all the more frightening because he is so attractive.


We first meet Collins' Telemachus as a playful, tender boy, loyal both to his mother Penelope and to his father's nurse who claims him as her own charge. As the people around him lose hope that Odysseus will return, and as the court descends into chaos, overrun by Penelope's obnoxious suitors, Telemachus loses respect for his mother. Collins is spot on in playing the awkward physicality of an adolescent young man, especially in scenes with Penelope, where he feels he must be standoffish to assert his independence and maturity, yet still allows his affection to show.


Star billing in this production really belongs to the ten women of the chorus as they play the Maids. Penelope tells her own story, from her own perspective. The Maids speak for everyone who is caught up in the wake of other people's stories, everyone who cannot control her own life. While the emotions and personalities of the Maids are very believable, the heightened, formal style of the chorus intensifies every movement and sound. They sing, dance, and act together, sometimes playfully and sometimes in terrifying ways. Through their body language, the Maids show us their shifting attitudes toward the masters they serve. When they have some time to themselves, their physical energy changes completely as they let us in on the realities of their lives, their resentments and their despair.


In both events and words, Atwood shows that Fate as seen in the Greek worldview, and Class as it continues to pervade our own world, are the same thing. People are born into a position which shapes their lives, and few can transcend or change it. The differences in status of men and women and the status of masters and slaves constantly echo one another in the play. Even valued servants, when it comes down to it, are in a lower position, to be commanded. In the Greek world of the story, they are literally slaves. The threat of top-down violence is always present. The loving Odysseus calmly, perhaps hardly consciously, threatens both his adored wife and his doting nurse when it serves his purposes.


Lack of trust is pervasive in the story. Penelope generally knows better than to trust those she cares about, and she is adept at deception herself. Whenever trust is placed, it's shown to be ill-advised and dangerous. Love doesn't change things much – characters who love one another still base their decisions on a grounding of mistrust.


These issues of gender, class and deception are enhanced by the casting of the play. The men are all played by women, the noble characters are all, except Penelope, played by members of the chorus of slaves with minimal costume additions.


Penelope comes to realize that asking someone in a position lower than yours to be “loyal” to you leaves them vulnerable to exploitation. That is her own experience as a loyal wife and mother, and that is the experience she thoughtlessly inflicts on the Maids. There's no indication that Odysseus comes to a similar realization. But I do think, perhaps, that this is an element of the story that Atwood wants us to come away with – that as people who are “one up” in the global picture, we need to recognize that we make others vulnerable to exploitation and that we must come to accept responsibility for everyone who contributes to our privileged lives.

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