The underworlds of women in Hart House's The Penelopiad
Photo Credit: Scott Gorman
Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad has taken the stage at Hart House Theatre, running from November 9 - 24. Directed by Michelle Langille, the play consists of an all-female cast of 12 members. Aside from Amanda Cordner, who plays the main character Penelope, the remaining cast members play two or more characters. This acting feat is made seamless with the aid of the simple yet distinct costumes created by Cat Haywood. The entire cast plays characters ranging from maids to suitors and even family members, as they collectively tell the story of Homer’s Odyssey from the perspective of his ‘obedient’ wife Penelope, who gawks at that word in her opening monologue.
Penelope narrates her story from present-day Hades, where she recaps her life from her birth till the aftermath of Odysseus’ return with a strong tone of resentment. She resents her father for attempting to murder her as an infant and Odysseus for leaving her to fight for Helen and for his misguided slaughter of the maids upon his arrival. Penelope also resents the suitors as they plague her home and threaten her son’s life. She even resents her mother for her coldness and lack of presence in her life. Despite Penelope’s fraught relationship with her mother, she is arguably most influenced by her mother’s advice: “Remember you are half water. If you can't go through an obstacle, go around it. Water does.”
Penelope’s costume is made purposefully blue to exude her adherence to her mother’s words, and by extension Penelope’s adherence to her water-like nature. As she narrates her story, we see her tactfully evade issues by going around her problems rather than facing them head on like Odysseus would.This is particularly exemplified by her tactics to keep the suitors at bay. The production does a wonderful job at portraying the weaving of the shroud which is accompanied by the maids’ a cappella performance. Significantly, there are no instruments drowning out their voices. In this manner, Langille does a fine job at ensuring the voices of the maids are literally and figuratively heard.
Though much of the story is narrated by Penelope, with soft blue stage lights representing the motif of water, there are intermittent angry interruptions from the maids who share the same resentful tone as Penelope. Except their resent is aimed towards her. The lighting plays a crucial role in exacerbating the tension between the maids and Penelope as it shifts to a bloody red when they echo, “we are the maids, the ones you killed, the ones you failed.” The tragic relationship between Penelope and the maids reflect that marginalized women often resent other women in the same situation, instead of directing their anger towards the true perpetrators of their oppression. The main culprit at the core of the oppression experienced by Penelope and the maids is the patriarchy, represented through Odysseus's cruel command over the land. The play develops this theme of rivalry between women through the recurring conflict between Penelope and Helen, dually functioning as comic relief for the heavier issues the play deals with but it is meant to elicit so much more than laughs. It provokes the understanding that sometimes the challenge against female empowerment is compounded by women themselves.
In her closing monologue Penelope says, “I can see that your world is still as dangerous as mine was, way back then. Through eons we still continue to suppress the voices of women.” She breaks the fourth wall to remove any ambiguity around the play’s message, and to force the meaning of the play out of the context of ancient Greece and into the discourse of feminism in the 21st century.