A Strange but Compelling Play
Before I begin, I have two confessions. First, I don’t like Homer’s Odyssey. I was forced to buy a very heavy copy of it as an undergrad English student. The spine was never cracked. Coles Notes got me through the finals, and that was all I wanted to know. Secondly, I am not a fan of Margaret Atwood, even though I consider myself a connoisseur of Can Lit. But my love of Alice Munro and Margaret Laurence squeezed Atwood right off the end of my bookshelf.
So I approached the opening of The Penelopiad at the Grand Theatre in London with some trepidation. From what I could learn, this play is Margaret Atwood’s novella about what happened to Penelope while her husband Odysseus was off to battle. Will it be boring? (As I overheard another theatre goer saying while we were finding our seats, “What if I fall asleep?”) And I worried, what if I don’t like it? Would it be blasphemous to say that out loud?
Fortunately, I was saved from embarrassment. This production has many excellent qualities, foremost of which is Seana McKenna in the lead role, backed by an inspired cast, and directed by Canadian icon Megan Follows. The timeliness of the message and the use of humour keep the audience riveted. Yes, it’s strange and weird, but that’s why everyone is wide awake.
The story opens with Penelope as the narrator, looking up from Hades, and looking back on her life. The first act is full of fun, with some rather zany surprises. There is a group skipping double dutch with an invisible rope. We learn Penelope’s nickname is Duckie, thanks to a flock of quacking ducks. Strangely, there are some silly walkers, borrowed from Monty Python. When Odysseus wins her in a competition, Penelope is happy to marry King Odysseus and leave her uninterested, distant mother and strange father who once tried to kill her. She is shy and naïve as she becomes a wife, and jealous of Helen, who is so beautiful and has all the men admiring her. But eventually, Penelope one-ups Helen by giving birth to a son, Telemachus.
Act two takes a darker turn. Odysseus goes off to battle and is gone for years. Reports come back the he is having affairs with various goddesses, or that he is dead. But Penelope remains steadfast that he will return. Numerous swaggering suitors show up at the palace, wanting to marry Penelope for the power she holds. Many of the suitors suffer from toxic masculinity, and rape the maids that Penelope sends to distract them.
Spoiler alert: Odysseus returns, but of course, you’ve read the entire Odyssey and you know that. Perhaps I won’t tell you what he does on his return, in case you’ve forgotten the bloodshed.
Seana McKenna commands the stage as Penelope. Her portrayal shows Penelope’s power to the public, but at the same time, when she is alone, McKenna humanizes the character with vulnerability and fears. McKenna takes us on a clear journey with the character, from her innocent youth, to her cunning manipulation of the evil suitors.
Tess Benger plays a maid and a suitor, but it is her role as the son Telemachus that stands out. As a young teenager with a baseball cap on backwards and a skateboard in hand, Benger makes us believe she is a kid with attitude. I’ve been a long-time fan of Benger’s: she has an amazing stage presence – you can’t take your eyes off her. I look forward to seeing her Sally Bowles in the Grand’s upcoming Cabaret.
Praneet Akilla holds his own as the only male on stage. He plays Odysseus, as well as a maid and suitor. Previous productions of the Penelopiad have been all female, so putting a male in this role is an interesting choice. Monice Peter is excellent as the overprotective maid Eurycleia, looking after Odysseus is if he were still a little boy. The rest of the cast members each bring individual personalities to the various maids and suitors.
The use of music, singing and dance adds to the production, giving it a modern look and feel. Credit goes to director Megan Follows for making the songs fit in seamlessly.
If all this sounds good to you, please call the Grand before it sells out. This play may not be everyone’s cup of tea: it isn’t the Grand’s usual fare. If you have an interest in the Odyssey or an interest in Margaret Atwood, you must go. But if you’re wavering about attending, and wondering if you’ll like it, I encourage you to jump in, just for the unusual experience. Tucked inside the strangeness, there is humour and a timeless story.
The Penelopiad continues at the Grand Theatre, London until February 9. Tickets are available at the Grand box office at 672-8800 or 1-800-265-1593 or visit www.grandtheatre.com.
Photo: The Penelopiad, with Seana McKenna as Penelope. Photo by Dahlia Katz.
By Margaret Atwood
Directed by Megan Follows
Choreographed by Philippa Domville
Composer, sound designer and vocal coach Deanna H. Choi
Performed by Seana McKenna, Praneet Akilla, Claire Armstrong, Tess Benger, Nadine Bhabha, Ingrid Blekys, Déjah Dixon-Green, Deborah Drakeford, Ellora Patnaik, Monice Peter, Siobhan Richardson.
Grand Theatre, London
January 22 to February 9, 2019.
Reviewed by Mary Alderson