Atwood gives voice to Trojan War hero’s long-suffering wife
TWO Toronto stage hits arrive in Winnipeg this week both spotlighting the horrors of war inflicted on women.
In Hannah Moscovitch’s intense This is War at Prairie Theatre Exchange, the assault rifle-toting soldier Tanya is on active duty on the front lines of Canada’s mission in Afghanistan. In Margaret Atwood’s provocative The Penelopiad, which also opened Thursday at the RMTC Warehouse, women play the more traditional passive role during military conflict, keeping the home fires burning while their men seek glory and immortality.
Atwood celebrates Penelope, who was the queen of Ithaca, cousin of Helen of Troy, but remembered — if at all — as the ultra-faithful wife of the Trojan War hero Odysseus. She is hardly mentioned in Homer’s Odyssey, so the eminent Canadian novelist wrote the 2005 novella The Penelopiad, which was adapted for the stage and provides a voice history did not.
Penelope is long dead and stuck in Hades, the ancient Greek underworld. She was a long-suffering wife who chastely waited 20 years for her husband to return to her and in the afterlife still seems to be miserable about her raw deal and how women today might consider her pathetic. In hindsight, she cautions her contemporary audience, “Don’t follow my example.”
If Homer’s epic poem represented he-said, The Penelopiad is a she-said response. Does the female perspective offer any more accuracy? Atwood cautions us to consider the source and that every storyteller chooses what to include, so listeners must decide what is true.
Penelope, represented on stage by the regal and always graceful Jennifer Lyon, reclaims her life with straight talk about her birth in Sparta, how her father tried to drown her due to a mistaken oracle’s vision, how she married Odysseus after he won her in a rigged footrace, how she can’t compete with her glamorous cousin Helen, her contented early married life in Ithaca and her legendary vigil. Lyon dishes with a dry sense of humour and a touching regret.
Her story is accompanied on stage with plenty of welcome eye-candy served up by director Tracey Flye and her talented designers Tamara Marie Kucheran (sets and costumes) and Hugh Conacher (lighting). They do a lot with little. A shimmering swath of turquoise material brings to life water scenes, a simple ramp provides a Titanic moment and it’s all tied together by rope, a recurring image. A ship’s mast proves just as versatile. It is used joyfully for skipping, as a means to sail to a new, better life in Ithaca and then as a weapon of misguided revenge.
The vibrancy of the two-hour drama is due to Penelope’s 10 maids who sing and dance and portray all the other people she encounters. Sarah Constible doubling as Odysseus is a highlight as she channels both the hero’s bravado and surprising soft side. Her appearance as Odysseus in disguise as a beggar is a hoot. As Helen, Kimberley Rampersad deliciously struts in a sexy peacock-coloured outfit, and is ever-so convincing that her face could launch a thousand ships. This talented ensemble also included Paula Potosky, a striking vision as the Naiad mother, whose sweet voice stood out throughout. RMTC Warehouse To March 9 Tickets: $20-$43.50 at www.mtc.mb.ca
out of five
The second act grows darker as Penelope waits and waits and the demanding suitors eyeing her kingdom gather to fight for her hand. They want a decision but she must prove her cleverness by putting them off for three years, with the help of her beloved maids. She has urged them to consort with the vile suitors, to become her eyes and ears with the promise of reward when Odysseus returns. That gets them raped and worse when the man of the house arrives.
A byproduct of Penelope finally getting her voice is that so do the maids and they are irate that she did not save them from being casualties of war. What’s worse is that she didn’t tell their story, so they remain marginalized by history, just like Penelope has always been.
Atwood suggests that there must be a third side to go with this he-said, shesaid story — they-said.