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The Penelopiad

Meg Roe,Laara Sadiq, Ming Hudson, Rachel Aberle, Sarah Donald. Photo by David Cooper.The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood,
Directed by Vanessa Porteous,
Arts Club Theatre Company
Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage
Oct 20 to Nov 20, 2011

Vancouver, BC: I loved the tag-line for this show - The Untold Story of the Original Desperate Housewife".  But do not let this mislead you into thinking this is in any way a television style comedy-drama. The Penelopiad is an exquisitely narrated re-imagining of Homer's Odyssey, from the perspective of Penelope, faithful wife of Odysseus, who waited twenty years for him to return from fighting the Trojan War.

Originally written as a novella by Atwood and then adapted for the stage, the play is structured with two basic elements. The first is the narrative thread recounted by Penelope (Meg Roe) from Hades where she is haunted by the shades of her slave girls who were murdered by her son Telemachus  at  the behest of the finally returned Odysseus. 

The cast of the Penelopiad. Photo by David Cooper.Penelope tells of her birth and early life, her marriage to Odysseus and the secret they share about the marriage bed.  He answers the call to go to Troy to get Helen back from Paris, but after Troy has fallen and the other Greeks return home, Odysseus cavorts around the Mediterranean for twenty years, sent to the underground by Circe and imprisoned on an island by Calypso. Besieged by suitors who want to marry her, Penelope devises a scheme to complete the weaving of a shroud for her father-in-law before she will make her decision on which suitor to marry. She enlists twelve maids to help her unravel the shroud at night and keep the suitors away.

Colleen Wheeler and Med Roe. Photo by David CooperThe second element is that of the chorus of women slaves, who act out events in the narrative, doubling as other key characters as well as playing the suitors who are after Penelope's hand in marriage.  Thus as well as playing the Maids, Rachel Aberle plays Oracle,  Lois Anderson  the nursemaid Eurycleia, Sarah Donald - the Violinist, Ming Hudson plays Telemachus, Megan Leitch is Penelope's Naiad mother, Dawn Petten - Antinous, a suitor,  Laara Sadiq - Helen of Troy,  Lopa Sircar plays King Icarius - Odysseus's father,  Quelemia Sparrow plays Melantho, and Colleen Wheeler plays Odysseus. It was a real treat to see an all-female cast of compelling and charismatic actors working with such harmony.

Meg Roe was luminous as Penelope and her blue dress looked lovely on her. She told her story with dry humour, talking to the audience as if to a friend. The verbal digs between her and her cousin, Helen of Troy,  brought a human face to both these two heroines of mythology. Yet she is cool and detached and it never feels as if she accepts responsibility for the unjustified slaughter of her maids. And as in The Odyssey where the voiceless maids are hanged "like thrushes or doves entangled in a snare', the maids have no voice until they are dead.

At first as Roe began to narrate her story I was a little disconcerted by the structure of the play. It seemed so much more tell than show. But as I thought more about it,  this was an entirely appropriate way to tell the tale. The Odyssey was after all composed as oral poetry - story telling. And isn't it fitting after nearly three millennia of Odysseus's adventures being told and retold, that Penelope finally gets to tell her side of the story.

This is another "don't miss" recommendation from me. Its different and its extremely well-performed. Just sit back and enjoy  Roe's perfect delivery and the wonderful  ensemble work of the chorus.

For tickets call  the Box Office at 604-687-1644  or  book online.