The Penelopiad a powerful new take on an old storyLove her or hate her, few can argue that Margaret Atwood knows her way around a woman’s words. The female characters in her books pulse with a tangible complexity: They have wit, intelligence and passion. As a writer, she fills the huge gulf between the stereotypical feminine archetypes of Saint and Slut with a nuance that’s often sorely lacking in literature. And now, with the Arts Club's help, Atwood leaps from the page to the stage with The Penelopiad.
A flipside to the Greek myth of Odysseus, it focuses instead on the hero's wife, Penelope (Meg Roe), and her struggles to keep their kingdom afloat during his decades-long Trojan War absence. She chooses the prettiest, youngest women slaves to become her confidants, and it becomes their job to stave off the thug-like men looking to claim the kingdom — and Penelope — as their own. The women succeed, but at a horrific price.
Structured so that it zigs in and out of time, Penelope alternates between recreating scenes from her life and narrating events in the present day from the spirit world (where she’s haunted by her cousin/rival, Helen of Troy and the slaves she failed). The slaves are portrayed by one of the strongest ensemble casts to ever grace a Vancouver stage: Colleen Wheeler and Laara Sadiq are particular standouts, thanks to showy dual performances as Odysseus and Helen of Troy, respectively. Wheeler, who has played a man with great authority before, fluidly transitions between her two roles perfectly with just the slightest adjustments to her mannerisms and movement.
Wheeler also sparks opposite Roe as Odysseus and Penelope’s sexual connection deepens their marriage. Here Roe goes beyond her usual reliably fantastic state and has, arguably, never been better. She’s regal, womanly and her subtle delivery of Atwood’s deadpan observations and poetic phrasing is spot on. She absorbs the pompous surface of Atwood's words in favour of the author's clever and keen observations.
Director Vanessa Porteous, artistic director of Calgary’s Alberta Theatre Projects, makes a stunning Vancouver debut. Confident, creative and insightful. With the exception of a faltering quasi-musical segment in act two, I’ve never felt — or welcomed — the presence of a director more.
The Penelopiad offers what might be one of the most daring, innovative and extraordinary productions in the Art Club’s canon. That, friends, is the ultimate in female empowerment.
The Penelopiad runs to Nov. 20 at Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage, 8pm (Wed-Sat), 7:30pm (Tues). Matinees: Wed, Sat-Sun, 2pm. $29-$65 from 604-687-1644.