The play, written by Margaret Atwood and now on stage at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre, is hilarious and heart-wrenching.
Male theatregoers beware: Nightwood Theatre’s Penelopiad makes your gender the butt of a significant number of jokes—but if you’re man enough to take it, you’ll be thankful you did.
Being staged at Buddies in Bad Times Theatre until January 29, the Margaret Atwood–penned play is a cutting look at gender and class, both hilarious and heart-wrenching. The music-rich stage show follows Odysseus’ faithful wife Penelope, deserted by her husband for 20 years as he takes his sweet time getting home to Ithaca after fighting in the Trojan War.
While strong female characters didn’t exactly permeate the classics, The Penelopiad turns the tables on the Odyssey story, telling it from a woman’s perspective, as imagined by Atwood.
Penelope, who appears only in spirit form, spends much of the show detailing her life as she pined for her long-lost man and guarded his island property. She is hounded by suitors whom she must fend off with the help of her young maids, who preserve their mistress’ faithfulness by offering up their own bodies to the libidinous men.
The play’s women are clever, wise, and funny throughout. They never miss an opportunity for a laugh at the expense of the opposite sex, despite a social structure in which they are virtually powerless. The powerhouse all-female cast is led by the captivating Megan Follows (Anne of Green Gables herself!) in the title role.
Meanwhile, as Odysseus, Kelli Fox bursts with exaggerated male bravado, portraying the adventurer as a swaggering, self-centred, uber-macho man eager for little more than conquests of kingdoms and women. It’s a lampoon of masculinity that is both comedic and cutting.
The writing is typically Atwood—witty and sarcastic—particularly in the first act of the play. Things get notably more sombre after the break. The murder of the maids upon Odysseus’ return is a foregone conclusion from the play’s outset. Eventually, levity makes way for profound misery, its impact on the visibly anguished audience a testament to the company’s versatility.
“We were dirty,” explains the chorus of now-dead maids, describing their time on earth. “Dirt was our concern, dirt our fault. We were the dirty girls. If our owners or the sons of our owners or a visiting nobleman or the sons of a visiting nobleman wanted to sleep with us, we could not refuse. It did us no good to weep, it did us no good to say we were in pain. All this happened to us when we were children. If we were pretty children our lives were worse.”
The Penelopiad is deeply upsetting, to be sure, but it is also a beautifully staged, excellently acted, thoughtful look at sexual politics that is very much worth the discomfort.