One school of writing holds that it’s crucial to craft something really powerful at the beginning and at the end. It’s a school Margaret Atwood’s “The Penelopiad” attends.
Opening with Penelope’s provocative, “Now that I am dead, I know everything,” the play is an attempt to rescue a story that has been erased: What was going on back in Sparta while Odysseus was gallivanting around for a couple of decades?
“Many people believe his version of events [in the poems of Homer] is the true one,” Penelope tells us before spending the next couple of hours setting the record straight in the Theatre Unbound production.
Under the direction of Julie Phillips, “The Penelopiad” makes connections to Atwood’s other work: Penelope is served by a dozen maids, all wearing bright red, hooded tunics not unlike the ones we’re used to seeing in “The Handmaid’s Tale.”
Atwood’s themes also are familiar, essentially that men always have ignored and abused women but that you can’t keep a smart woman down. Penelope (wry Audrey Johnson) narrates “The Penelopiad” from the afterlife, revealing how she managed to hold her country together in the absence of Odysseus, as well as the terrible price she paid for doing it.
Not coincidentally, you won’t find a single male pronoun if you consult the cast and crew list in the drama’s program. Ursula K. Bowden’s inventive set is a marvel of accomplishing a lot with a little (you haven’t seen this much gauzy white fabric on a stage since Garland Wright’s heyday at the Guthrie Theater).
The 13 women in the cast make for a nimble ensemble, sliding easily from female roles to male roles to music-making. Eva Gemlo, for instance, is very funny as a Helen of Troy who has more than a little of “Mean Girls’ ” Regina George in her, then persuasive as the less-assured Iole, the prize in a (male) archery contest, and in between she plays both cello and mandolin as part of the ensemble that performs the lovely underscoring. Composed by music director Rhiannon Fiskradatz, the music is subtle and intelligent, choosing to hint at the emotions of the characters rather than beating us over the head or telling us what to think.
Atwood is guilty of the latter. As in her recent novels, she doesn’t always trust her audience, so she reiterates arguments she has made already or that we’ve managed to put together. But her decision to refocus these familiar stories was a sound one, as was employing contemporary language to describe events that happened eons ago. Using the first-person plural to tell their story, Atwood’s women are a powerful, compassionate and imperfect collective (like Lydia in “Handmaid,” Penelope is complicit in the abuse of women).
Their secret weapon in their fight to be heard is that they’re constantly being underestimated, and the striking finale of “The Penelopiad” leaves it to us to decide how much that has changed in the intervening centuries.
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