DISCLAIMER: I will go into some detail about the plot throughout this review. Consider yourselves spoiler-alerted. If you want to read the review to decide whether or not to see the show, just read the last paragraph. Or just pony up the 5 bucks and see the show, ya cheap skate.
Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad opened this past Tuesday, giving voice to the voiceless and asking difficult questions about gender norms and responsibility. Director Shannon Ireland elegantly wove a story of lies and truth, shadows and echoes, voice and images.
The play expertly demonstrated what can be done with a single prop. The ropes that they skipped with as children became the ropes of life that the fates weave for them, then the shroud they weave to save Penelope. Finally, those very same ropes are the ones that hang them. Ireland followed this intensely complicated and beautiful metaphor through to a tee.
The play really shone with the choral scenes. The image of the women weaving and unweaving, while they weave together their voices in harmony, and indeed their lives and experience, was wonderfully done.
Some choral scenes however, did not work. The rape scene was rushed. It was too quick of a jump for the audience to make. We needed to see the character decide he was going to rape the maid. It didn’t need to be much, but it was missing, and because of that, the scene was over before the audience really had time to catch up. On the flip side this, it was nice that we registered the rape during the black out. Letting the audience use their imagination worked really well. The timing of this balance— showing enough, but not showing too much—was off. With rape scenes, it’s always a tricky balance, and they didn’t quite get it.
Adriana Fraser, who played Penelope, was very impressive. What seemed at first like prosaic acting was revealed to be a very subtle interpretation of the role. I think that the character of Peneolope herself would take time to warm up to. It has been said that acting is like music— it’s all in the silence, the spaces between the words. Fraser’s pauses were bang on. You could see her thinking, feeling, re-seeing what she is telling us. My only criticism is that her emotional highs and lows could have been brought to higher extremes. In the climax of the play, when she discovers that her maid are dead, she cried only for a moment then walked calmly off stage. It was almost as if she completely dropped her character as she exited. This would have been a nice moment to push the emotions of Penelope’s 20-year struggle to the surface.
The entire chorus was very well acted. Only Kate Howell, who played Helen, left me cold. She embodied the stereotypical ditz from crappy cartoons. In other words, they failed to make her human. You can be a bitch and still be human— this play especially lends itself to this. There was no subtly or depth in Howell’s portrayal of Helen.
But there were a few lost seams. The transitions from scene to scene were simply done, yet they bordered on static. There were a few too many blackouts, a few too many entrances and exits. The scenes twinkled like gems that were, at times, clumsily strung together. When a perfect harmony happens, a third note is created. A montage of images creates a new image in our minds. These in-between moments, like the pauses in Fraser’s speech, could have held a real depth. Ireland could have weaved the scenes themselves together in a creative way, as she did the voices and movement of her actors.
The play explored complex themes and images to emotive effect. Most of all, Ireland did things that theatre does best—she used props, costumes, choreography, silences, audience address in exemplary ways. She used these tactics to illustrate the play in the only way theatre can—through a complicated patchwork of visuals, voice and emotion. Definitely one not to miss.