Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Minneapolis/St. Paul

The Penelopiad
Theatre Unbound
Review by Arthur Dorman | Season Schedule

Also see Arty's reviews of Hit the Wall, Fast Company, In a Stand of Dying Trees, and A Life of Days

Audrey Johnson and Danielle Krivinchuk
Photo by Theresa Burgess
The great Homeric poems "The Iliad" and "The Odyssey" cover twenty years during which the hero Odysseus is away from his home in ancient Ithaca. For the first ten years, Ulysses, along with Agamemnon, Menelaus, Achilles and other heroic Greeks, are waging the Trojan War. Once the war is won, Odysseus ventures home but is taken off course, first by storms, then by interventions of gods, nymphs, gorgons, and other mythological figures wielding their power. For ten more years—including seven as the prisoner of Calypso, who enslaves Odysseus as her lover—his trials, tribulations and triumphs mount, until he final arrives back in Ithaca where his faithful wife Penelope awaits.

All that waiting, though, could not have been easy for Penelope. Imagine: for the first ten years she worries endlessly that he might lie dead in battle. Her only comforts are occasional dispatches from Troy reassuring her that her husband still lives. With victory claimed, she anticipates his return, but day after day, year after year, he fails to arrive. Now there are no dispatches, not a word about where he is or if he still lives. How does she endure the loneliness, the constant worries, the challenge of raising their son Telemachus without a father figure, and the mounting pressure from a rabble of suitors demanding that she face the fact that Odysseus must be dead and choose one of them to take over her marriage bed, along with her prospering estate?

The prolific writer Margaret Atwood is probably best known for her 1985 novel "The Handmaid's Tale" and the Emmy Award winning television series based on it, launched in 2017. In 2005, Atwood published a novella called "The Penelopiad," part of the first set of books in the Canongate Myth Series. This series invited contemporary authors to rewrite ancient myths from a contemporary vantage point. Atwood seized the opportunity to write a book to suggest answers to our questions about Penelope—her background, the pools of strength within her own psyche and those she cultivates in her household, and the price she pays, unjustly, for her husband's wanderings.

In 2007 a theatrical version of the novella employing an all-female cast was co-produced by the British Royal Shakespeare Company, in Stratford on Avon, and the Canadian National Arts Center in Ottawa. That production was tepidly received, but with continued work, it was restaged in 2011 in Vancouver and 2012 in Toronto, this time to great success. Theater Unbound has brought The Penelopiad to Twin Cities audiences, giving it a muscular production that portrays Penelope's inner strength and the bonds she forms with other women in order to circumvent the malevolence of men.

Atwood's play presents Penelope's background as the daughter of a Naiad, meaning she is half composed of water, giving her the fluidity to slip around barriers rather than need to confront them head-on. Penelope is not perfect, as we see in her open contempt for Helen of Troy, the vain and beautiful queen whose abduction triggers the Trojan War. As a young wife of just 15, she allows herself to be steamrolled by Eurycleia, Odysseus's aging nursemaid. Eurycleia inserts herself as the primary caregiver to the infant Telemachus to the point that the babe's first word—"mama"—is spoken to her. In time, however, Penelope discovers that her husband—who won her hand by winning a foot race—is kind and patient with her, and that she does love him.

Penelope builds alliances with a dozen maidens of the household who become her compatriots in plotting to forestall the suitors' increasingly aggressive demands for Penelope to forsake her husband. The maids do Penelope's bidding willingly, it seems. Yet, it is the case that she has authority over them. How free are they to refuse her? Penelope cannot trust Eurycleia, her son Telemachus now a willful young man who castigates his mother for not doing enough to cast the suitors away. While it is not ungrounded, that inability to trust becomes a source of anguish.

Julie Phillips' direction moves the ensemble of thirteen actors—all women—seamlessly on and off stage. Most of the actors are cast in multiple roles, and they shift between characters with a fluidity that feels almost balletic. The play begins at its conclusion, with Penelope telling her story from Hades after she has died, so we know that a grim ending lies in store, but throughout the two acts there is a continuous rise in tension. The play is staged on the thrust stage at Gremlin Theater, with Ursula K. Bowden's set design creating an evocative, dreamlike space with white gauze drapes forming a backdrop and embracing the columns that mark the two forward corners of the stage. A wooden platform transforms, almost magically, from a bed to a ship to a giant loom.

Atwood organized her play in the style of classic Greek drama, with a narrative presented by Penelope, and a chorus of observers, here the twelve maids who are Penelope's co-conspirators. The maids make their observations in various forms such as childish rhymes, laments, folk songs, a sea shanty, a ballad, a love song. For musical accompaniment, several of the maids pick up instruments: a cello, a violin, a mandolin, a guitar, a couple of ukuleles, and some simple percussion. Their choral delivery is beautifully performed, at times mesmerizing, with cast member Rhiannon Fiskradatz serving as the superb music director and composer.

Audrey Johnson has the role of Penelope, and infuses it with tremendous heart, conveying the love, the intelligence, and the fortitude that enabled her to withstand her ordeal. Johnson is the constant thread throughout the play, maintaining her stature as the title character without overshadowing the excellent work being done by her fellow actors.

Wendy Freshman gives a great performance as the controlling Eurycleia, breathing life into the saying "killing her with kindness." Haley Haupt is spot on as Telemachus, increasingly rebellious and dismissive of his mother's authority in a time when women were expected to be subservient. Danielle Krivinchuk makes a solid Odysseus, his virtue a bit undermined by his vanity and haste in action, but able to express tenderness and share humor with his child bride. As Helen, Eva Gemlo conveys an arrogance that lets us forgive Penelope for despising her. As an ensemble portraying the twelve maids, there is a remarkable cohesion among them that becomes a force in its own right.

A word of praise goes to Alexandria Gould for designing costumes that can be simply changed to allow actors to transition between characters, always giving us a clear sign of which character is which, with a uniform look for the maids that helps to identify them among other characters, but also makes a statement regarding their indistinguishable personas. They are not important as individuals, but as maids to Penelope. Even as she embraces them for supporting her, she has power in the household, while they have none. Julia Carlis' lighting design is especially effective in creating new vistas, as in casting light upon a ship at sea, or creating the darkness in the next world from which the maids report on the indignities they have endured.

I was tremendously impressed by The Penelopiad as a dramatic work that is powerfully moving, as an examination of a woman reaching within herself to find the power she needs to survive, and as a corrective to the male-centric orientation of our foundational myths. Theatre Unbound has given it a beautiful, stirring production that makes all the right choices. It is hard to imagine The Penelopiad in more capable hands.

The Penelopiad, a production of Theatre Unbound, runs through December 1, 2019, at Gremlin Theatre, 550 Vandalia Street, Saint Paul MN. Tickets: $22.00, students: $18.00. For tickets and information, visit or call 612-721-1186.

Playwright: Margaret Atwood; Director: Julia Phillips; Set and Properties Design: Ursula K. Bowden; Costume Design: Alexandria Gould; Lighting Design: Julia Carlis; Musical Director and Composer: Rhiannon Fiskradatz; Assistant Director: Sara Bogomolny; Fight Choreographer, Intimacy Choreographer and Stage Manager: Heather Ashley.

Cast: Morgen Chang (Melantho), Rhiannon Fiskradatz (Anticleia, Narcissa, guitar), Wendy Freshman (Eurycleia, Chloris), Eva Gemlo (Helen, Iole, cello, mandolin), Kara Haack (Kerthia, violin), Haley Haupt (Telemachus, Celandine, ukulele), Audrey Johnson (Penelope), Christy Johnson (Laertes, Phasiana, Suitor), Megan Kim (Antinous, Klytie), Danielle Krivinchuk (Odysseus, Zoe), Melissa Miller (Icarius, Alecto, Suitor), Tia Tanzer (Naiad Mother, Tanis), Emma VanVactor-Lee (Oracle, Selene, Suitor, ukulele).