At­wood gives voice to Tro­jan War hero’s long-suf­fer­ing wife

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - ENTERTAINMENT - By Kevin Prokosh

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.

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