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Penny Downie as Penelope
Penny Downie as Penelope

Theatre review: The Penelopiad at the NAC in Ottawa

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The Penelopiad runs at the National Arts Centre in Ottawa through October 6. Resident theatre critic Connie Meng was at the opening night and has our review.

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Connie Meng
Theatre Critic

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The English Theatre at the NAC has opened its season with THE PENELOPIAD by Margaret Atwood, based on her book of the same title.  This is the North American premiere of their first ever co-production with the Royal Shakespeare Company.  The play opened this summer at Stratford-upon-Avon in the UK.

The play re-tells the story of the Odyssey, but with a twist.  It's told from the Underworld by Penelope and her twelve maids who were hanged by Odysseus upon his return.  Telling it from Penelope's and the maids' point of view makes it quite a different story.  The cast of 13 women, from both Canada and the UK, re-live their stories not only in witty dialogue but also in burlesque and song. 

As Penelope Penny Downie gives a powerful performance and paints a fascinating picture of the woman behind the myth.  Her Penelope is highly intelligent but also feels mis-judged as a woman.  Although attempting to clear her name, she's obviously still haunted by the hanging of her maids.
As for the maids, all twelve actresses are versatile and believable in both their female and male incarnations.  As Telemachus Mojisola Adebayo is a perfect incarnation of a rebellious teen-age boy.  Kelly McIntosh makes a wonderfully air-headed Helen of Troy.  Kate Hennig is stubbornly over-bearing as the nurse Eurycleia, while Corinne Koslo is hilarious as Penelope's father Icarius.  Sarah Malin is thoroughly believable as the wily Odysseus, and Derbhle Crotty is a powerful Antinous and frightening in the rape scene.  Time precludes me from mentioning the rest, who are equally good.

Rosa Maggiora's spare set works well with Bonnie Beecher's defining lighting.  The music by Warren Wills and sound by Martin Slavin are both really good, although on opening night there were a few balance problems with the singers and some lyrics were lost. 

The choreography by Victoria Tennant is in general very good, especially that for Philippa Domville as Penelope's Naiad mother.  The piece that doesn't work is the over busy fan number, reminiscent of CHICAGO, with its abrupt change to a truncated Charleston.

Director Josette Bushell-Mingo along with her design team has created a world of mischief and disconcerting darkness.  The play begins in total darkness with an assault of sound.  Suddenly Penelope appears alone in a shaft of light.  Gradually the maids appear chanting and totally veiled.  It's eerie and gripping. Miss Bushell-Mingo continues to create these memorable stage pictures throughout, sometimes using slow motion.  In one of the most remarkable, following the suitors' deaths they transform into the maids who are then hanged with no ropes - only body language.  This marvelous piece of staging lingers in the mind.

This is a fascinating re-telling of a mythic story.  It forces Penelope to deal with the unjust deaths of the maids and also makes us consider the place of women in today's world.  With a running time of an hour and forty-five minutes and no intermission, we become immersed in this world of myth.  Although not a conventional play, it's highly theatrical.  Perhaps it's story telling at its finest.  Call it what you will, THE PENELOPIAD is beautifully performed and beautifully mounted.

On a scale of one to five the Royal Shakespeare Company/NAC English Theatre co-production of THE PENELOPIAD gets four and five-eighths Royal Canadian Mounted Police.  For North Country Public Radio I'm Connie Meng.

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