Tuesday, January 29, 2013

THE PENELOPIAD: classically great theatre

"Now that I'm dead, I know everything." So begins Penelope, the narrator and protagonist of the PENELOPIAD,  as she floats out of the mists of Hades in the theatrical adaptation of Margaret Atwood's novel, currently on at Buddies in Bad Times in Toronto. 

The production is a remount of last year's Dora-award winning production.  It is that rare show that is great on every count: acting, direction, choreography, script and production.

Distance allows a dispassionate view and a wiser if broken Penelope ( a sharp, understated performance by Megan Follows) has come back from the underworld to explain how she ended up married to a serial killer.

Atwood is arguably my favourite writer of fiction.  Here the great author offers a blackly humorous, deeply empathic, wickedly smart and inky dark feminist retelling of the classic tale of Odysseus and the Trojan war.

The battle of Troy and the voyages of Odysseus are shared, not by the male hero but by his wife, the long suffering Penelope and her gaggle of lovely, murdered maids who died at the hands of Penelope and Odysseus' only child and heir.

The wily and much admired Odysseus (the brilliant Kelli Fox) marries the 15 year old Penelope and carts her off to Ithaca where he seduces her, knocks her up with a trophy son and then abandons her.

For the next twenty years, she waits for him to come home:  on a pile of rocks with a bunch of goats, his overbearing nursemaid, her spoiled and resentful son, a senile father-in-law, a toxic mother-in-law and twelve loyal, clever beautiful, female servants who help her keep her wits and her virtue. Meanwhile Odysseus  is off in Troy to fight a war in honour of her hotter and - totally self-absorbed cousin, Helen, (a luscious and droll Pamela Sinha).

Odysseus doesn't bother to write and Penelope doesn't know if he's alive or dead, but she's a good woman, and her husband has told her he'll kill her if she sleeps with someone else, so she waits.

In Atwood's version of events, Helen runs off with the hot Paris because her father has married her off to a rich, disgusting idiot and she wants to get banged by a guy she actually wants to sleep with.  Odysseus heads off to war, well, because he can, oh yeah and because he likes to screw around.  Apparently sauce for the goose isn't sauce for the gander. Nice guy.

The long-suffering Penelope enlists her maids to fend off and contain a stable of boorish opportunists, who are trying for her husband's kingdom and her fine form while she tries to deal and remain faithful to a totally unfaithful man who is in no hurry to come home.

Atwood shows the audience the dark side of being a hero's handmaiden:  the largely unappreciated and overworked stick propping up the entitlements of a glamorous, self-important and heartless narcissist. 

Kelly Thornton and her fine cast unfold the drama with all its power, beauty, absurdity and awfulness. With a few effects, great lighting, effective movement and unadorned embrace of a powerful story the cast and director bring the author's vision to majestic life.

It's not that narcissists don't care about anything.  They care, as Odysseus cares, about ideas, principles and battles.  They care about opportunities for self aggrandisement:  a hot wife, land, winning, a son.   More than anything, they cares about appearances, especially how they appear to the world.  What they never care about is other people.  They just never care about you. Not even the gods can protect you from their entitlements and the wrath of their wounded egos and morally vacant souls.  Penelope learns this lesson the hard way.   Atwood gives voice to a woman who never managed to get a word in edgewise.

It's a great play.  Go, just go.