Mother Road's new Albuquerque theater production The Penelopiad is unlike anything I have ever seen anywhere. Its uniqueness is threefold. It is a retelling of Homer's story of the Greek hero Odysseus, but from the point of view and with the voice of his much put upon and long abandoned wife Penelope. It combines a book by novelist Margaret Atwood with original music, lyrics, and dancing in a complex shadow-and-act bit of stagecraft. And it features a chorus of about a dozen young women. The result is an unusual play, one told from a feminist perspective. Penelope wins our sympathy because she tries to do everything right, remaining faithful to her husband, running the estate and the kingdom efficiently, and befriending the slaves and handmaidens around her. There is no tragedy in her character but there is in her circumstances and, most of all, in her gender, for she is a woman required to play a man's role in impossible circumstances.
The technical aspects of the performance are as ambitious as its content. The vast stage is largely in shadow with highlights staking out actresses nimbly climbing curtains suspended form the ceiling. In a dramatic execution scene, several members of the chorus hang themselves upside down from velvet nooses.
While Odysseus is off fighting the Trojan War, "having sex with beautiful goddesses" in Penelope's words, and using his wits to get his party safely back home, Penelope is trying to cope with an onslaught of suitors who devour her food and dissipate her wealth, finally even having sex with her handmaidens (although the narrative leaves it unclear who seduces whom in this sexual tangle). Meanwhile, Penelope waits with fading hope for her husband's return. That return, however, proves to be its own kind of agony and tragedy.
Wendy Scott, who does a magnificent job as the besieged and struggling Penelope, is on stage constantly, and her narrative is the lynchpin of the story. The young, agile, and dramatic female chorus is a remarkable feature. In this all-female cast, the women play both male and female roles. In the context of giving a modern and feminist twist to an ancient and thoroughly masculine epic, this works, forcing the audience to reevaluate how they see gender behavior.
Much credit for the success of the show goes to Julia Thudium, the prime mover of Mother Road and director of the production. On stage before the performance, she described Penelope as "the original desperate housewife." In a director's note, she explained her involvement with the production: "I have directed a few shows with all male casts. I have long tried to find a piece that featured all women ... While that might have been what motivated me, as we got into this play, my real goal became to help free Penelope from her symbolic representation of patient womanly perfection." Original music by Sid Fendley and choreography by Debra Landau add invaluable elements to the show. Collaborating with Mother Road in this production is Air Dance, which has a large and wonderfully flexible and evocative space that makes the acrobatics as well as the moody and shadowy narrative possible.
The Penelopiad continues Thursday through Saturday at 7:30 p.m. and closes with a 2 p.m. performance Sunday, April 26, 2015. Performances at Air Dance are at 3030 Isleta Blvd. SW in Albuquerque. For tickets and information call 243-0596 or go to motherroad.org.