Review: The Penelopiad (Nightwood Theatre)

When I found out that the stage adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad was being produced in Toronto by Nightwood Theatre at Buddies in Bad Times I was very intrigued, as I had read the book and wondered how it could be staged. To be perfectly honest, I thought the book was a little didactic and was saved from being dull only by its humour. It has a clear feminist agenda, which I entirely agree with, but I want books – and plays – to entertain me, not to preach to me.

In the book Penelope, Odysseus’s wife from the classic tale by Homer, tells her story with choral interruptions from her twelve maids, who Odysseus had killed when he returned from his long journey. The story is meandering and many characters make appearances in many different settings. I thought that a stage version would have to be very theatrical, and I was correct.

Buddies black box space can take many formations but I’ve never before seen it arranged as it is for this show. This novel setup takes advantage of one aspect of the space which makes an incredible impact at the very opening of the show. (I won’t spoil it by telling you what it is.) The visual gorgeousness doesn’t lessen after that; it grows and grows, particularly in regards to the costumes which double as props and set dressing.

These costume pieces assist the performers in transforming into different characters, as is usual in a show such as this, but they also create an ocean, a dinner table, dead bodies. The costumes are gorgeous, and integral to the telling of the story.

Also admirable is the choreography. Some of the story is told with Megan Follows’ Penelope on stage alone but for the most part the chorus of maids, who also play all the other characters, are present as well and their movement is almost always dance. A lot of this is heavily synchronized, which unfortunately meant that when someone was slightly off in one little movement I noticed it. But this is early in the run and I have every confidence that these tiny moments will be smoothed out in no time.

The whole cast, choreographer Monica Dottor, and director Kelly Thornton deserve kudos for making this difficult story come to life onstage but my highest praise for this production goes to set and costume designer Denyse Karn. The Penelopiad is visually stunning, a lot of which must be her handiwork.

– The Penelopiad is playing at Buddies in Bad Timesl (12 Alexander st) until January 29, 2012
– Shows run Tuesday to Saturday at 8pm, with an additional matinees on Saturdays and Sundays at 2pm and Wednesdays at 1:30 pm
– Ticket prices range from PWYC – $46, with a 20% disc. for patrons assisting patrons with disabilities
– Tickets are available online, or through the box office at 416.975.8555 or in person at the venue

Photo of Denyse Karn, Producer/Designer and Kelly Thornton, Director,  by Tanja-Tiziana