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Theatre Review: The Penelopiad


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The cast of The Penelopiad (Image: John Lauener)

There are few writers in Canada who have reached the peaks of international success achieved by Toronto’s own Margaret Atwood. It has long been known that her novels and short stories are almost inevitably satisfying; they are witty, insightful, powerful, meaningful. So how wonderful it is to report that her fine “myth novella” of seven-plus years ago, The Penelopiad, has returned as an astoundingly good theatre production by Nightwood Theatre.

The direction, by the gifted Kelly Thornton, is awesome in its clarity and focus; the choreography (by Monica Dottor), costumes (by Denyse Karn), lighting (by Kimberly Purtell) and music/sound/composing (by Suba Sankaran) are also commendable. And the large, all-female cast is so good that my wife and I were on the edge of our seats throughout the two-and-a-half hours of glory (with a brief 15-minute intermission).

The originating idea is so profound that one wonders why it is not done more often: Atwood and others were invited to create new angles of looking at great myths, and what myths are greater than those told in Homer’s The Odyssey?

Much of the pleasure here — and the pleasures are endless — comes from seeing the impact of war on one-half of the human race: women. It’s an impact that tends to be ignored by too much of history, literature and life.

Those who may be put off by this utterly devastating focus are missing plenty, because this is not petty, get-even-with-men rhetoric on Atwood’s behalf. It is recognizing just how cruel, savage and unfair it has always been to ignore our mothers, sisters and daughters.

Penelope herself is played brilliantly by one of the icons of Canadian acting, the wonderful Megan Follows, who entertained us all for so many years with her superb and memorable Anne in the TV series Anne of Green Gables. She has grown up now, and her many talents along with her: she is irresistible as the faithful wife of the far more famous (but less admirable) Odysseus (played by the never-better Kelli Fox, one of Canada’s best performers).

Meta-fiction abounds: Penelope tells us that she is now dead and is in Hades for eternity; we encounter Penelope’s past, as we see her thrown into beautiful waves (played by well-handled blue cloth) as a baby, but escaping and growing up, thanks to her origins as a descendant of water gods.

There are some snarky — but hilarious — references to Odysseus’s lack of height (with implications that this may be echoed in his lack of size in other departments), but that is the closest that Atwood ever gets to any general put-down of all men.

We learn that Penelope’s marriage was arranged by others (when she was 15); that Helen of Troy was an impossible flirt (a brilliant Pamela Sinha); how Penelope cleverly fights off endless suitors for her hand, as she waits two decades (!) for her husband’s return (“I had to keep up the appearance of hope” she tells us); how Odysseus was often deceitful and unfaithful. There are poems chanted in perfect unison; haunting songs sung with wise rhymes (you’ll think of “grieving-and-weaving” for the rest of your life). And we get horrific rapes acted out in slow-motion, and even more painful, see women betray their own sex continually, to the point of murder, due to impossible circumstances.

This is a fabulous production of a very beautiful play by one of our finest writers. This extraordinary evening of live theatre reminds us why myths are so central to every society, and why the telling must never stop.

The Penelopiad, Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, 12 Alexander St. 416-975-8555. Now - Feb. 10.

Allan Gould is Post City Magazines’ theatre critic. He has a PhD in English and Theatre from York University and has written over 40 books. His writing has appeared in Toronto Life, Chatelaine, enRoute, Canadian Business, Good Times and the Financial Post. He is married, with two children. Aside from his family, his major passions are theatre and film, because they enrich life with pleasure and meaning.

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