Just before the Pandemic hit, I attended a reading at CityGarage of a play by Margaret Atwood based upon her novel Penelopiad. A friend of mine in the company was really jazzed, having already been cast in a scheduled full production!
Happily, time has passed and CityGarage survived, and now they have resumed their plans to produce this play, which tells the story of the Odyssey from the point of view of Penelope, wife of Odysseus.
We begin in Hades, the afterlife, when the shade of Penelope (Peggy Flood) ponders her life and its consequences, She recalls her youth (Lindsay Plake) and how her father almost had her drowned due to an oracle. However, Penelope's mother (Angela Beyer) was a sea nymph and the children of such do not easily drown. She also gives her child some advice that will help and hurt her in the years to come, about being water which does not resist but envelopes, goes around, and in the end always wins.
Metaphors and similes being inexact, this proves of mixed value. Penelope later ends up wedded to the clever Prince of far away Ithaca (Emily Asher Kellis) who--like every other royal in the Bronze Age--had vied for the hand of Penelope's beautiful, remorseless cousin Helen (Marie Paquim), and whose unfaithfulness would later spark a war. The bulk of Penelope's story takes place in Ithaca, where initially she has little to do save bear a child, Telemachus (Courtney Brechemin). In particular she has to deal with Eurycleia (Geraldine Fuentes), her husband's old Nurse who spoiled him, and then spoils his son, with the careless and relentless will of someone only a little clever but not at all wise.
The real challenges arise, however, as the Trojan War proceeds, then ends, but Odysseus does not return for ten long years. Having done much to make Ithaca wealthy, Penelope finds herself the target of predatory suitors (Kat Johnston, Devin Davis-Lorton, Mary Egan) with only the help of a dozen special maids, slaves born on Ithaca and who had become dear to her (Loosema Hakverdian, Marissa Ruiz, Lea De Carmo). From such comes the tragedy to unfold, for the Maids haunt Penelope in Hades. Eventually we learn why.
So much for plot. What really makes up the beating heart of this production are the twin beats of ritual and theme. In a true echo of Greece's ancient theatre, much here is made of dance and masks, with the Maids switching between individuals enduring assault and hatred and a final blinding cruelty, and also a true Greek Chorus bidding us consider the world from the viewpoint of the less fortunate, the abused, the so-called "walk ons" and "extras" in life. This includes, of course, all women, to one extent or another. While a feminist work, this play seems mostly to focus on the more pervasive sins of Vanity and especially Cruelty. Indeed, Penelope at one point notes how she has watched the world in the millennia since she died. It has only grown worse, in her eyes. That is why she refuses to re-incarnate, to re-enter that cruelty, even though she remains tortured by her husband's charm which covers up his restlessness. Worse, she remains haunted by the shrill voices/images of her "doves" the murdered Maids she failed to protect.
Yes, it was not her fault. She tried. But she did fail. And more to the point, she should never have had to try. But this world is full of casual cruelty. Better to remain in Hades. That was what Penelope learned. Water does not conquer in the end. Water simply remains. It does not seem enough.
But also, the ritual which which the play appears before us demands some praise. In fact nearly the entire cast plays multiple roles, and sometimes I barely realized some played certain roles until I read the program. The way the cast members became ships, became waves, became ghosts, became slaughtered animals, etc. was part of how director Frederique Michel brought a frankly difficult play to life. It proves a wonderful dive into the imagination, rather than some over-extravagant outpouring into live special effects on stage (I'm looking at you Phantom of the Opera as well as a dozen others). When certain things happened on stage in this production, I flinched. Other times I giggled, usually with at least one character. This show despite its scale of wars and worlds, remained intimate not only in terms of the writing but our experience.
The Penelopiad plays Fridays and Saturdays at 8pm, Sundays at 4pm until December 18, 2022 at CityGarage, Bergamont Station, 2525 Michigan Avenue, Building T1, Santa Monica CA 90404.