If you’re anything like me, you read the Odyssey back in school and remember maybe a little about Odysseus’s wife Penelope. It’s not a spoiler for Epic Theatre’s production of The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood’s stage adaptation of her own novella, to say that director Kira Hawkridge takes inspiration for her stage pictures from Penelope’s most memorable feat: deceiving her horde of suitors by promising to select a husband once her weaving is complete, then secretly unweaving it every night. Hawkridge has her all-female cast weave long strips of fabric, hanging from the ceiling like a giant loom, into shapes both abstract and literal. It’s striking in itself (one of my favorites was the image of Odysseus’s sailors hanging off the rigging of their ship as they first bring Penelope to Ithaca to be its new queen), and also a great way of working in the difficult Artists’ Exchange performance space.
The Penelopiad has a built-in advantage over some of the other page-to-stage adaptations in Epic’s past few seasons, in that the narration is already first-person. MJ Daly, as Penelope, grabs the audience from the very first line. As a queen who has been dead for thousands of years by the time she’s sharing the room with the Epic audience, she is regal but has no more need for formality. Daly is conversational with us as she narrates her life and describes her worldviews, but completely believable as a person of that world and time.
Penelope’s narration is counterweighed by the voices of the ensemble, and it’s their “We are the maids / the ones you killed / the ones you failed” that provides (again, in my experience as a reader who didn’t remember the maids’ role in the Odyssey) a central mystery of the play. They also play the various important figures in Penelope’s story, among them her husband Odysseus (Melanie Stone), cousin Helen (Kerry Giorgi), son Telemachus (Tammy Brown) and overbearing suitors (Christine Pavao is especially menacing). As the maids, though – gossiping, singing, mocking and telling the audience a life story no less neglected than Penelope’s – they’re a constant presence in Penelope’s life as themselves. What is it, then, that Penelope does to them that leaves them haunting her? That’s revealed as events spiral frighteningly and tragically downward, to the end of the Odyssey plot and past it.
In a play that (unavoidably) hits the plot beats of the Odyssey rather than striking out into a new narrative for Penelope, Hawkridge and her cast give the events that are most important to Penelope, and not to Odysseus, the time they need to land. In particular, one moment near the end is quite slow and deliberate, and painful to watch in the best way.
Penelopiad is the culmination of Hawkridge’s ensemble-centric work with Epic Theatre and Out Loud Theatre, and also of Epic’s page-to-stage work. It runs for one more weekend at the Artists’ Exchange in Cranston.
Penelopiad runs through June 18; Theatre 82, 82 Rolfe Square, Cranston. For tickets, epictheatreri.org