Thursday, 11 April 2013

Splendid Penelopiad revisits epic domestic tragedy

                                                                                    Epic Photography
The full cast of Penelopiad at the Citadel Theatre
The central character of Margaret Atwood's theatrical adaptation of her novella Penelopiad is the paradigm of the patient, virtuous wife. She is the woman who withstands every inconvenience and even every humiliation that her husband submits her to and still remains faithful and, in the traditional telling, uncomplaining. Penelope, wife of ├╝beradventurer Odysseus, hero of Homer's epic poem The Odyssey, is a secondary character in the ancient tale, but in Atwood's re-imagining of the Odysseus story, the wife gets top billing, and she has a few things to complain about.
Her adventures, while she waited steadfastly for twenty years to see her wayfaring spouse return from the trouncing of Troy and ten years of nautical meanderings and a very bachelor-spirited drift back to Ithaca, are dramatic in their own way. But in the end, the drama she recounts in the play from her place in Hades, dead and gone but still remembering the hope and despair of her time on earth as the famous Wanderer's loyal consort, is the drama that Odysseus caused. Penelope may get her voice heard in  Penelopiad, but the story she tells and the eternal suffering she endures continue to be remnants of the aftershocks of her husband's self-centred, violent life on earth.
Nevertheless, Atwood's reflections on Penelope's place in the heroic, and ultimately anticlimactic ending of the Odysseus saga, are compelling, and compellingly rendered in this MacLab staging.
The Citadel production, running until April 21, features the 13 women in this season's Citadel/Banff Professional Theatre Program. Beth Graham is the ever-present narrator of this version of the Odysseus story; she plays the storyteller role engagingly, at times roused to anger by recollections of her unlucky life, at times movingly pathetic in revisiting her helplessness, her helplessness especially to save the 12 maids who spied for her against the brutish suitors who vied for Penelope's hand as she waited for her husband to come home. When Odysseus finally returned, he hanged the women, ostensibly because the despicable suitors had used them as concubines, and they were no longer fit to serve his household.
The spirits of the dead women haunt Penelope in the afterlife. The scene in Act Two when the women sing of their betrayal is beautifully staged and dramatically poignant.
Except for Gorham's starring role, this is an ensemble production; however, a few women do get some solo attention, and they deliver strong performances.
Mary Hulbert milks the role of the vain, self-possessed Helen for all it's worth, antagonizing Penelope in the early part of the play when the two are still alive and sexual rivals, and she continues to gall Penelope, playing the beauty card in the Underworld at already miserable Penelope's expense to some good comic effect.
Lisa Norton keeps the treble to a minimum in her depiction of the charismatic trickster Odysseus, portraying the clever man as masculinely as a woman could without resorting to caricature, and Claire Hesselgrave's Telemachus, the scion to the Odysseus legacy, does fine work in capturing the youth's false bravado and impotence against the grisly suitors who bully him mercilessly. Nadien Chu reminded me a little of Maureen Stapleton's inimitable Edith Bunker, not so squawky, but earthy and often very funny. She has some of the toughest Atwood language in the play.
Dressed in a form-fitting, stylish, white winding-sheet, Graham is the pivot of this Atwood take on the story, the quarterback of her own memoir and the victim of historic spousal neglect. Graham is on stage from start to finish, recounting and witnessing and participating in the story of her life. (This play resembles in a way The Kite Runner in its narrator-based structure.)
In the beginning, Graham recounts her early life with Odysseus, who wins her in race he cheated in, their short time as lovers (long enough to produce one son, Telemachus) and his departure to Troy, to, of all things, try to help Menelaus, Helen of Troy's cuckolded husband, fetch his wife back from her abductor, the Trojan Paris.
The legend has it that although Helen had been defiled by Paris (an old-fashioned notion now, perhaps), Menelaus was helpless against her renowned beauty and let her live after retrieving her with his Greek cohorts' military assistance.) Odysseus wasn't so kind to the household maids for their dubious service to their besieged mistress.
Penelopiad is simply but beautifully staged. I especially liked the way the sung chorus parts are integrated into the witty and forceful Atwood script, and all the women, thankfully, have triple-threat abilities as actors, singers and dancers.
This culmination of another year of intensive performance training in the Citadel/Banff program is wonderful theatre, full of wonderful writing and strong stage talent.