The Penelopiad is a container for some interesting politics

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By Margaret Atwood, based on her novella. Directed by Vanessa Porteous. An Arts Club Theatre production. On the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage on Wednesday, October 26. Continues until November 20

It isn’t until Act 2 of The Penelopiad that novelist Margaret Atwood starts to behave like a playwright. This makes for a boring first act and a better second.

This script, which Atwood adapted from her own novella, tells the story of Odysseus, which Homer made famous, from the point of view of Odysseus’s wife, Penelope. Here, Odysseus’s heroic journey becomes Penelope’s tragedy. When Odysseus finally returns after a 20-year absence, during which he masterminded the fall of Troy, he orders the hanging of 12 of Penelope’s female slaves, whom he mistakenly identifies as traitors. Although Penelope feels responsible for their deaths because she didn’t act quickly enough to save them, she never quite identifies her true failing, which is passivity. But Penelope has eternity to work it out. In The Penelopiad, she tells her story from the cool spaciousness of Hades, picking over the details, trying to figure out what went wrong.

Meg Roe is stellar in the title role. One of the best actors you’ll ever see, Roe brings a persuasive stillness and depth to her characterization. Without pyrotechnics, she loads the lines with complex feelings and mines every gem of Atwood’s droll wit. “It’s always an imprudence,” Penelope says, “to step between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness.” This joke would work even if overplayed, but it’s much better delivered with Roe’s understatement.

Unfortunately, not even Roe can save Act 1, in which a whole lot gets described but virtually nothing happens. Act 2 improves, largely because a defining conflict emerges: certain that Odysseus is dead, belligerent suitors start hanging around Penelope’s palace, vying for her hand and consuming her resources. Penelope must scheme to hold them at bay. That’s when she involves her maids, asking them to distract the suitors by consorting with them. All of a sudden, we’ve got conflict, high stakes, meaningful relationships, and action. We’re not listening to books on tape anymore; we’re in the theatre.

Throughout, director Vanessa Porteous creates beautiful stage pictures using a minimalist aesthetic. Because the maids were hanged, Terry Gunvordahl’s set is composed largely of ropes; swaying ropes become water, a single rope becomes a snake. Allison Lynch Griffiths’s sound design, which has been augmented here by Alessandro Juliani, features pretty, folk-inspired songs for the all-female cast.

All of this becomes a container for some interesting politics. The play pays lip service to the humanity of the maids, but it allows them virtually no individual identities; they have names, but they speak as a chorus. The maids are heavily victimized and martyred, which might make the play’s politics appear old-school, but the central tragedy is a critique of female passivity, which is more interesting.

Some of the best female actors in Vancouver play the maids and all of the other characters. Among them, Lois Anderson stands out, drawing crystal-clear distinctions between a number of roles. Colleen Wheeler makes a sexy Odysseus, but, in some ways, her portrait is flat: she only uses about two notes of her vocal range, for instance. Making stereotypical choices when playing men, some of the other actors spread their legs so wide when sitting you’d think we were backstage at Cirque du Soleil.

Generally well-performed—exquisitely performed by Roe—and imaginatively directed, The Penelopiad’s main weakness is its script.

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