Theatre review: The Penelopiad – a fully realized and inventive re-telling of a classic

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There are many reasons Margaret Atwood is one of Canada’s most celebrated writers and Meg Roe one of this city’s most celebrated actors.  The Penelopiad, currently on stage at the Arts Club’s Stanley Theatre, is one of those reasons.

The re-telling of Homer’s Odyssey through the eyes of the now dead Penelope and her maids, The Penelopiad not only incorporates the rich storytelling of Homer’s original epic poem but adds movement and song.

Director Vanessa Porteous has assembled a veritable who’s who of Vancouver’s female actors as the maids.  Playing double-duty here much of the time, the women are not only relegated to playing Penelope’s servants but must also play at the various male roles.  While a strong ensemble, there are a number of stand outs including Colleen Wheeler as a tough and tender Odysseus, Laara Sadiq as a playfully seductive Helen of Troy and Lopa Sircar as part of the loopy Ithaca royal household.  My one beef here though was an almost universal portrayal of the male characters with legs splayed wide.

Not relegated to only playing necessary male characters, the maids also act as Greek chorus, play various musical instruments, dance and sing.  Indeed some of the best moments of the evening were in song, although there was some disconnect for me with the sea shanty and folksy nature of some of the music and this ancient Greek story.

But while the maids are uniformly strong, it is Meg Roe in the role of Penelope that triumphs here.  Roe executes Atwood’s words as if they were her own, providing a compelling depiction of the woman behind the myth, grappling with her role in the execution of her loyal maids.  From the naïve and timid teen to the strong woman able to fend off her aggressive suitors, Roe takes us on a journey that is as colourful and descriptive as its source material.

The cast of the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of The Penelopiad. Photo by David Cooper.
The cast of the Arts Club Theatre Company’s production of The Penelopiad. Photo by David Cooper.

The design elements of the show are almost as masterful as to the story being told.  Director Porteous works with her design team to bring each aspect of the story to life.  Terry Gunvordahl gives us a constant stark reminder of the fate of the maids with long ropes that frame the stage.  While perhaps a bit literal, Gunvordahl elevates them beyond the ordinary by lighting them in shimmering blue hues as the ongoing water motif weaves through the story and in dark reds as the maids meet their doom.

Costume designer Deitra Kalyn wraps Roe in a beautiful blue chiton as a constant reminder of her heritage as the daughter of Naiad, a water nymph.  Embellishments on the maid’s drab tunics easily transform them to their male roles and Laara Sadiq is given a dash of colour as Helen of Troy with a fiery red dress and plunging neckline.

Allison Lynch Griffiths and Alessandro Juliani do double-duty as both musical directors for the various songs and in creating a soundscape that works particularly well in underscoring Penelope’s speeches from the Underworld.  Movement designer Denise Clarke brings many wonderful moments to Porteous’ overall vision.

With a solid combination of performance and design, The Penelopiad is a fully realized and inventive re-telling of a classic, all led by Meg Roe’s superb performance.

4 Out of 5 Stars The Penelopiad

By Margaret Atwood.  Directed by Vanessa Porteous.  An Arts Club Theatre Company presentation.  On stage at the Arts Club Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage through November 20, 2011.  Visit for tickets and information.

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