“The Penelopiad” an epic tale, told in the perfect location
Leda Hoffmann directs an all-female cast in Margaret Atwood's retelling of Homer's "Odyssey" from Penelope's point of view.
Forget the average night at the theater. If you want a captivating night of drama, one of your best bets right now is to go underground – or at least under-bridge, to see The Penelopiad, a powerful production that examines the tale of the Iliad and the Odyssey from abandoned wife Penelope’s point of view.
Director Leda Hoffman’s cast of 13 – Penelope (Reva Fox) and her 12 favored maids, who also play the variety of other roles required – have quite the task before them. Homer’s original epics about the Trojan War and Odysseus’ return to Ithaca have held a firm grasp on Western imaginations for more than 2,500 years; Margaret Atwood first wrote The Penelopiad as a novella less than a decade ago and adapted it for the stage shortly thereafter.
But her parallel story maintains its roots in the Homeric oral tradition, and Hoffmann’s cast conveys their story with a matching gravity. In the Odyssey, all we get of Penelope’s plight is a tale of her tricking her many suitors with unfinished shrouds and unachievable tests, and her eventual rescue by Odysseus, who orders her 12 unfaithful maids hanged. Atwood’s interpretation focuses on Penelope’s unsatisfying early life, and recasts those maids as Penelope’s loyal servants, killed as an unthinking consequence of Odysseus’ masculine triumph.
It’s a powerful storyline in its own right. Fox spends much of her time speaking directly to the audience, effectively pleading her case in opposition to the established narrative, but also frequently addresses the maids, who aren’t always in sync with her complaints and often point out the difference between her regal privilege and the increased plight their ignoble births put them in. She brings a tortured but powerful presence to the role, and her dozen co-actors support her well, with especially good turns from Molly Corkins as old nursemaid Eurycleia, Kelly Doherty as Odysseus, Gwen Zupan as Telemachus and Sally Staats as Melantho.
Make no mistake: Hoffmann’s decision to perform The Penelopiad at this location is no convenient coincidence of availability, or a meaningless cry for attention at a unique venue. This location is as much a conscious, calculated move as her costume designer Caitlin Lux’s choices of clothing (Penelope in regal red, her maids in haphazard workaday blues) or Terrance Barrett’s composition of often-haunting original music to match Atwood’s lyrics for the maids. Glowing benches and the sinister rumble of cars tell you we’re in the underworld before the performers do. The swings the actors climb upon are as unsure as their safety from Penelope’s male suitors. Even as these 13 women speak of patriarchal privilege and a world where female voices are silenced, motorcycles drown out their songs and men lingering outside the audience circle shout out drunken parodies of their lines.
True, this staging comes with its difficulties. The aforementioned noise level is metaphorically resonant, but makes it hard to hear when actors aren’t directly in front of you. It’s cool to see the cast use the swings in inventive ways (my favorite: their intricate weaving and unweaving of a funeral shroud a la maypole), but some of those tricks leave their chains jingle-jangling through poignant monologues. And, of course, you’re never going to get 12 people to speak in sync, so some of their unison speeches and chants end up jumbled.
Those don’t matter for one simple reason: the oral tradition The Penelopiad builds upon simply doesn’t need perfection to work. You certainly could perform this play as an immaculately polished work, at a large fancy theater with plush seats and a curtain, and have something very nice at the end of the day. But there’s a cleverness to Hoffmann’s execution I admire. It’s less about telling a story of characters from a classical epic. More about the experience of those characters, and feeling their situation resonate in an era where women can find themselves in similar traps.
Penelope says, at the end of the piece, that the dead can choose to be reborn, but fears her life now could be even worse than the one before. No one cruises up Water Street blasting “Blurred Lines” out their window to drive the point home, but Hoffmann can’t get that lucky, I suppose.
The Penelopiad will take place at the Marsupial MaTIREal Garden, the swing park underneath the Holton Street Viaduct at approximately the intersection of Water and Pearson Streets. Parking can be found on Water Street or across the river on Commerce Street or in Lakefront Brewery. Hoffmann and company recommend the latter, as do I; Penelope’s maids and underworld ferryman Charon await you on the Marsupial Bridge, and it’s a clever prelude to the main event.
Performances are at 8 p.m. nightly through Tuesday, August 27. Tickets are pay-what-you-can upon arrival; suggested donation is $10 and 10% of all proceeds will go to the Milwaukee Women’s Center.