Sunday, January 15, 2012

Review: (Toronto) The Penelopiad

Megan Follows (photo credit: Robert Popkin)

A Whimsical Production that Warrants Applause
...and a conversion...
by Alexandra Lelli

The word ‘contemporary’ gets thrown around a lot when describing Margaret Atwood’s ability to spin a yarn. In The Penelopiad – a revisionist account of Homer’s The Odyssey from the perspective of his virtuous wife, Penelope – Atwood’s cunning wit and relevant analysis of class, gender and privilege leaps off the page.

I am reluctant to admit I wasn’t a fan of Atwood’s novella (published in 2005) – reluctant because it makes me feel anti-Canadian. I felt like something was missing. Fortunately, Nightwood Theatre’s all-female cast brought Atwood’s contemporary epic to life. Under the direction of Kelly Thornton, who also acts as Artistic Director of Nightwood Theatre, my foray into the alluring shroud of “classical tragedy, Victorian melodrama, campy burlesque and rollicking song” had begun. I found my missing ingredient: this story was meant for the stage.

The incomparable Megan Follows portrays our reframed heroine, Penelope. You’ll get no complaints from me.

The Penelopiad cast and crew remain faithful to Atwood’s celebrated (re)vision. Everyone’s having a laugh while mocking the myth. From the pith and humour of Penelope’s narration, to the playful introduction of the Chorus – played by the twelve hung maidens with nooses about their necks, which double as jump ropes and later the thread Penelope uses to weave Laertes’ shroud – to the lampoonish portrayal of Odysseus and Penelope’s odious suitors, this whimsical production certainly warrants applause. The incomparable Megan Follows portrays our reframed heroine, Penelope. You’ll get no complaints from me. As I overheard one audience member declare, “you can’t go wrong with Megan Follows”. Jackie Maxwell, Shaw Festival’s Artistic Director, gushed, “Kelli Fox is alarmingly good [as Odysseus].” Yes, I like to listen in on people’s conversations. But, it was alarming: Fox must have been Odysseus in a past life. While the more prominent characters in this production are well-cast – I speak of Follows, Fox, Pamela Sinha as Helen of Troy and Bahia Watson as Telemachus, Odysseus’ son – I was disappointed with Patricia Hamilton’s portrayal of Eurycleia. Hamilton is a pillar of Canadian stage and screen, thus it is difficult for me to express my criticism of someone I hold in such esteem. Yes, she did play the annoying nursemaid who is infinitely loyal to her darling boy, Odysseus, yet I could not shake the feeling that any mature actress could have cranked out this performance. It wasn’t memorable and it didn’t showcase Hamilton’s brilliance and carefully honed skill. Her voice stayed at the same pitch and tone for every line she delivered. Should I blame Hamilton, or those who chose to cast her in this production? Fortunately for Hamilton, the audience is meant to dislike the nursemaid.

The convention of having women portray male characters always requires the suspension of disbelief, as much of theatre does, but it came easily in these instances.

The use of an all-female cast, especially in their role as the Chorus was engaging and well executed. These actors immersed themselves in the world Atwood created for them and at their best it was magical to behold. The convention of having women portray male characters always requires the suspension of disbelief, as much of theatre does, but it came easily in these instances. In the first act, the methods employed to scrutinize the machismo of this revered epic were riveting – and it works better when you have a Chorus of women performing and lampooning ‘masculinity’. After the intermission, we were treated to a scene reminiscent of the Satyr plays – the Chorus earnestly chases Helen about the stage, while grasping their phalluses and panting: a flagrant and fun assault on machismo. The rest of the act centres on the suitors’ aggressive pursuit of Penelope’s hand and the ‘real’ reason the twelve 'favourite' maids paid these suitors any mind. However, it is this shift in narrative that shatters the illusion for me.

The frequency of Penelope’s savvy interjections and the playful portrayal of masculinity by the Chorus are substituted for a somber look at the oppressive position both the maids and Penelope are placed in, as a result of the suitors (as well as Telemachus and the absent Odysseus). It was in the way the production presented the darker issues – for example, the female actors playing men who had to rape women – that I could no longer suspend disbelief. In this particular example, all I saw was women attempting to imitate ‘manly men’, putting on ‘manly’ voices and trying to seriously, in slow motion, rape the maids. I believe the illusion was shattered by the confused use of the slow motion technique.

Earlier in the play, this technique is employed to dramatize the foot race Odysseus competes in to win Penelope’s hand. We are meant to laugh. Juxtaposing two sentiments by employing the same theatrical illusion (in this case, slow motion) is a tried and true formula; however, using it to then illustrate a disgusting abuse of patriarchal power only confused things further. Similarly, in the scene where Odysseus slays the suitors, the lighting, the energy on stage and the ‘combat’ itself was cheesy (especially given that the slaughter was preceded by a comical attempt to string Odysseus’ bow – no innuendo intended I’m afraid). What was Thornton aiming to emphasize through the use of slow motion in this scene? Is this an attempt to dispute Odysseus’ ‘heroic actions’? It is unclear. Although I was left unsatisfied by these clumsy moments, my overall impression of the production was positive. Thankfully, the vehemence, devastation and betrayal of the hanged maids are palpable until the last breath of the play. I am fueled by a need for justice and am happy to know the maids will haunt both Odysseus and Penelope to the end of time.

January 10 – 29, 2012 at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre

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