On Friday evening, Hart House Theatre held the opening production of The Penelopiad, directed by Michelle Langille, and adapted from Margaret Atwood’s novella. The story centers around Penelope, wife of Odysseus, and her twelve maids who were hanged upon Odysseus’s return to Ithaca from Troy, whence a war raged for the beautiful Helen of Troy. In The Penelopiad, Margaret Atwood tells Penelope’s side of the story and how she waited twenty years for her husband’s return, how she kept her suitors at bay, how she recruited twelve of the youngest, most beautiful maids to help distract the suitors, and how their mental and physical labour was cruelly disregarded.
Actor Amanda Cordner played the role of Penelope, wearing a golden crown and a blue gown, and delivered her lines with an unmatched confidence, a clear, captivating voice, and an imposing presence that demands attention. A spirit in the underworld, Penelope recounts her early life and her marriage to Odysseus, played by Arielle Zamora who brought humour and conviction to the role. Thirteen actors in total graced the stage, with the twelve maids playing various other roles, switching in and out of costumes throughout the play.
Ellie Posadas played the role of the maid Narcissa as well as the boastful beauty Helen, whose unabashed confidence in her beauty gave the audience quite a few laughs. Even in the underworld, she is a menace to Penelope, whose husband was one of the many people enamoured by Helen’s beauty. In a memorable scene, Penelope points to the audience and accuses Helen of attracting so many admirers even in spirit form. Helen replies, “Desire does not die with a body, only the ability to satisfy it.”
Other notable performers include Rose-Ingrid Benjamin, who plays the role of Kerthia and doubles as the Oracle. During one of the many songs sung by the maids, Benjamin sings a few solo lines in an absolutely stunning, melodic, goosebump-inducing voice that shines in a league of its own. Actor Kyra Weichert plays various roles, including Telemachus, the son of Penelope and Odysseus. Her portrayal of the weak-willed, gullible Telemachus was compelling, and often humourous.
The twelve maids, insultingly dubbed “the dirty girls,” suffer taunts by Telemachus and abuse from the suitors, enduring it in loyalty to their queen Penelope. A memorable scene depicts the maids lying on the floor next to each other, crying out in sparse breaths as their bodies get ravaged. They help Penelope weave a shroud for Laertes, Penelope’s father-in-law, holding ropes in hand, stitching them as threads, “weaving, grieving.” The audience is reminded of this scene, of the maids’ labour, when in the final act, they are handed ropes upon Odysseus’s return. Penelope is locked away in her room, given a sleeping draught, unable to attest to the maids’ service to her. Sobbing, the maids tie ropes into nooses and as they tighten them around their necks, lights flash at the audience, blinding us as the deed is done. In the next scene, the maids sway lifeless from the ropes.
A recurring image of the maids with their hands over their mouths remains with the audience, the image of silenced women, in history and now. In the underworld, in Penelope’s mind, they torment her with their screams. They shout, “We had no voice / we had no name / we had no choice / we had one face / one face the same / we took the blame…” In one of the last scenes, the maids hold a trial for Odysseus in the underworld. Yet they do not get justice. Still, they are tormented, haunted by their abuse in the mortal world. Still, Penelope drowns in guilt. She delivers a soliloquy at the end. She is alone as the spirits of the maids run from her. “Run isn’t quite accurate,” says Penelope. “Their legs don’t move. Their still-twitching feet don’t touch the ground.” The play ends as the maids sway in the background, hanging from their nooses, perpetual shadows that haunt Penelope, leaving a poignant impression upon the audience.
The Penelopiad will run at Hart House Theatre until November 24.