The Penelopiad - A Marvelous ImprudenceFriday, November 04, 2011
Penelope is herself a fascinating character, utterly different from all the Homeric prima donnas and self-dramatizing primo divos we have been in the presence up to now. Though he scarcely awards her an aria of her own, Homer constantly shifts his description of her, as if to underscore her many facets. She is "reserved," "discreet," "cautious," "wary," "poised," "alert," "guarded," "composed," "well aware," "self-possessed," "warm, generous," "of great wisdom," "the soul of loyalty." She, too, weeps in private, draws a veil across her face in public. She is the female equivalent of her husband, secretely strategic, full of wiles, keeping the overbearing suitors at bay for years with one deception after another.
Sailing the Wine-Dark Sea - Why The Greeks Matter
by Thomas Cahill, 2003
|Meg Roe & Lois Anderson|
At age 69 I may be part of a diminishing statistic, a person who read Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey in a Richard Lattimore translation. I read them both twice, the first time because I had to and the second time because I wanted to.
As a little boy in Buenos Aires, when I was running around in short pants and playing with my neighbourhood friends, I was either Gene Autrey (sometimes the Llanero Solitario, the Lone Ranger) or, with short wooden sword in hand, the great Achilles.
I admired Achilles as my ultimate hero (Tarzan was waiting in the wings) and only as I became a bit older did I shift my allegiance to my namesake Alexander.
The Odyssey never offered me something of interest. I did not like the crafty, to me dishonest, Odysseus, I preferred the spoiled brat but virtuoso warrior that Achilles was. I was not old enough to see into Achilles’s relationship with the fair Patroclus as anything more that one of friendship. Surely in those days I would have been shocked to have known the truth.
In 1955 I went to see Robert Wise’s film Troy in which the beautiful Italian Rossana Podestá was Helen. But I had two other reasons to go. One of them was Achilles, who was going to play him? Who then was Stanley Baker playing Achilles ? Would he be the hero of my dreams? He was. The other reason was more mundane. There was a small part for Brigitte Bardot. By age 13 cleavage was very important to me.
You can imagine that my intense interest in seeing the Arts Club Theatre production of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad (adapted by her from her 2005 Novella by the same name and directed by Vanessa Porteus) was not because of it being a retelling of the Odyssey. Even though it was a shift from Odysseus to Penelope, through her eyes, ears and voice and her 12 maids. A few of those maids, dressed as men, to play her father, her nasty suitors, her son Telemachus or her crafty husband Odysseus.
My intense interest was due to the presence of two actresses, Meg Roe as Penelope and Lois Anderson as Eurycleia her maid, a fixture of Odysseus's Ithaca for many years.
There are many good actresses in town and one of them is definitely Colleen Wheeler. Who can forget her from Trout Stanley, where she appeared with Lois Anderson and Jonathon Young? Wheeler plays one of Penelope’s maids but, also, a most manly Odysseus, too, even if her red hair might remind you of that most manly Irish Spring Soap ad with shades of Maureen O' Hara. In fact I must state here that I have an exciting task at hand which is to convince Bard on the Beach’s Christopher Gaze to produce a Shakespeare play with an all female cast! The Arts Club Theatre’s production of The Penelopiad is ample evidence that men are sometimes not needed, except by those Amazon women of yore.
While Roe does not have freckles and she is much shorter than she seems to be it suddenly clicked in my mind what it is about Roe that I have found faintly familiar. It all clicked when I saw a recent screening of Fred Zinnemann's 1952 The Member of the Wedding. There is a performance, one of the best in films ever, by a young Julie Harris ( a sea of freckles and not short ) that confirmed in my mind the calibre of actress that Roe is.
When I photographed Meg Roe and Lois Anderson in one of the dressing rooms of the Stanley Industrial Alliance Stage I asked them for suggestions on what that play could be. They mentioned Midsummer’s Night Dream. They may be right but I am thinking that Lois Anderson would be dynamite as Richard III and Meg Roe would be the perfect Hamlet and cast Ophelia as the only token male in this version of the play. Mr. Gaze, the ball is in your court, sir!
I cannot be more glowing in my reports on this play and its production values. Seasoned and professional theatre critics, Peter Birnie from the Vancouver Sun and Jo Ledingham from the Vancouver Courier have written ample copy. This is a play worth seeing. I would not deny that.
But neither of them have stated this: The Penelopiad is a play that is worth seeing twice. The first time around I saw it with my wife Rosemary from the middle row just a few rows back. I was able to see everything, including maid Sarah Donald play a musical saw (for more on this read at bottom) in the back at extreme stage right.
The second time, I saw it from the first row. How many of you reading here, are aware that this row, and in particular in the middle are not only the best seats in the house but the cheapest? With enough lead time you can secure them (less than $30, each) and enjoy a play that probably just because Meg Rose plays Penelope, would trump the 2007 production of The Penelopiad in Stratford-upon-Avon with Penny Downie as Penelope, in of all things, a red dress!
To begin, with Costume Designer Deitra Kalyn’s designs of Roe’s luscious dresses with lots of Helenistic cleavage were further inspired by her choice of blue and aqua. After all the advice that Penelope gets from her Naiad mother (Megan Leitch) to be like water and go around problems was right on.
My second venture to the play was yesterday. I bought my front row seats on late Tuesday so my friend Paul Leisz and I sat in the middle row, but stage-right. We missed the saw playing and few other things.
My friend Leisz (who assisted me in the dressing room portraiture) does not go the theatre a lot. Of Meg Roe he said, “That woman has a lot of dialogue to remember.” “She’s so natural. It doesn’t seem like she is acting.” He got it right.
But I would add that Roe’s built-in dolphin smile is so convincing and invigorating. Roe was just chatting to us all and telling us how it was that she waited 20 years for her husband to return. But sometimes that dolphin smile can quickly turn into pathos and it is in those moments that I know that she, Anderson, Gabrielle Rose and a few others are what make our theatre scene in Vancouver a great on. Take that, Stratford upon two hyphens!
Some might wonder exactly what it is that our Atwood has added to that ultimate and original bard, Homer’s (was he one or more, we will never know) Odyssey?
I think I got it. Everybody knows that when Odysseus returns home with the help of Athena (not a character at all in Atwood’s version of the story) he is recognized by Eurycleia and that he changes his beggar like appearance to convince Telemachus that he is indeed his father and much alive. You might also know that Penelope is not the wiser and does not find out until the next day when all the suitors have been killed by Odysseus and Telemachus and her maids killed (hanged in this play). It is Eurycleia who in the original epic reveals to Penelope that her husband has returned. There is a most important scene, a bedside scene where Penelope tests her Odysseus.
But in Atwood’s The Penelopiad there is this from her novella (it is the latter part that Roe so beautifully utters in a wonderful - Ah! Shucks! - aside.
No sooner had I performed the familiar ritual and shed the familiar tears than Odysseus himself shambled into the courtyard […] dressed as a dirty old beggar. […] I didn’t let on I knew. It would have been dangerous for him. Also, if a man takes pride in his disguising skills, it would be a foolish wife who would claim to recognize him: It’s always an imprudence to step between a man and the reflection of his own cleverness.
When Roe said those words, thanks to Atwood's turning of the Odyssey up-side-down, Penelope is suddenly an empowered modern woman. We are in on the secret and nobody else is the wiser. This is the best moment in the play.
When the play was about to end, in my second viewing, Penelope finds out of the brutal execution of her 12 faithful maids (don’t count them on stage as they are always at most only 10). She is unable to show her enthusiasm for the appearance of her husband right there on their conjugal bed. She descends into Hades to finish the telling of her story and from my vantage point I spotted tears coming down. Actors can do this and I will never understand how they do it. Coming from the wonderful Meg Roe it was most special.
As I left I remembered the words from the final scene between Odysseus and Penelope (before he ventures out again on further adventures):
So husband and wife confided in each other while nurse and Eurynome, under the flaring brands, were making up the bed with coverings deep and soft. And working briskly, soon as they made it snug, back to her room the old nurse went to sleep as Eurynome, their attendant, torch in hand, lighted the royal couple’s way to bed and, leading them to their chamber, slipped away. Rejoicing in each other, they returned to their bed, the old familiar place they loved so well.
There are really two plays in the Penelopiad. There is the extraordinary one that is Roe’s monologue and there is the second one played by her supporting cast of 10. This supporting cast, much like Odysseus, is crafty and full of ingenuity. They act, they sing, they dance and they play assorted musical instruments. Here is the complete list:
Violin – Sarah Donald
Saw – Sarah Donald
Cello – Rachel Aberle
Gong – Lopa Sircar, Quelemia Sparrow
Hand Drum – Dawn Petten, Rachel Aberle
Penny whistle – Megan Leitch
Drum – Laara Sadiq, Rachel Aberle
Cymbals – Rachel Aberle, Quelemia Sparrow, Megan Leitch
Egg Shaker – Dawn Petten
“Fish Stick” – Sarah Donald
Guitar – Ming Hudson
Triangle – Sarah Donald, Colleen Wheeler
Xylophone – Sarah Donald
Finger cymbals – Rachel Aberle