You're left with the unsettling knot in your gut that you have misunderstood not only one of antiquity's most famous works, but the nearly three thousand years of history subsequent to its first telling. That, of course, was the intent of The Penelopiad, Emily Moler '15's rendition of Margaret Atwood's famous feminist work, itself a reinterpretation of Homer's The Odyssey.
The Penelopiad tells the story of Penelope, Odysseus's wife, during her husband’s twenty-year absence—a story that Homer himself only offers snippets of during his epic. The play follows Penelope's story from her marriage to Odysseus to her faithful attempts to delay remarriage to one of the many suitors who come to her while Odysseus is lost at sea and presumably dead. The story ends with his return, although not under the joyous circumstances found in the original.
While Penelope narrates the play, it eventually becomes clear that the story is not about her, but rather her 12 handmaids—the ones who are hanged in The Odyssey for licentiousness, connivance with the suitors, and betrayal of Penelope and Odysseus. However, in this rendition we learn the handmaiden's connivance with the suitors was instead reconnaissance at Penelope's request so that she could thwart their plots against her and keep them behaved. Their promiscuity was not depravity, but sexual assault, misperceived by Odysseus's son and faithful maid, Telemachus and Eurycleia, respectively. Rather than the opportunistic whores they're made out to be in The Odyssey, in this retelling they are epitomes of loyalty, innocence, and martyrdom. Their sacrifices are made to buy Penelope time while Odysseus takes his time returning, making a one-year pit-stop with the beautiful enchantress Circe and a seven-year dalliance with the nymph Calypso.
Thus, the 12 maids not only sacrifice their bodies for Penelope but also their lives for a guilt borne by Odysseus. Penelope, too, is guilty, culpable for not only allowing their torture, but encouraging it so that she can remain faithful to a faithless man.
The lugubrious Penelope was wonderfully played by Lily Donahue' 15, who deftly carried the narrative through its hour-and-half-plus run and movingly delivered some of the most heart-wrenching and dismal scenes. She displayed an immense comfort with the focal role and did justice to the leading lady.
Special attention must also be given to Evy Yergan '16, who portrayed the arrogant Odysseus and provided the much-needed comic relief along with the brutish and boisterous suitors, most notably Antinous, played by Rebecca Zipursky '15. Their caricature male behavior—exaggerated ball-scratching, nose-flicking and Neanderthal-like swagger—was some of the show's most memorable and enjoyable moments.
And one would be remiss to not give due consideration to the production staff. The stage (designed by James Barber '15), with its chipped edges and faded mosaics, invoked the Attic amphitheater where the original Odyssey might be presented. Costumes, skillfully designed by Alli Green '15, aided greatly in delivering the Hellenic authenticity, and along with carefully cued music (Margo Chanin '16) and lighting (James Kuzio '15), generated a powerful experience for the audience.
The Penelopiad was a masterfully mixed cocktail of humor, intelligence, and tragedy. The terrible fate of the 12 maids, unjustly vilified, has echoes in a contemporary world that is encountering its own transforming social narrative. Those marginalized, silenced, and slandered—blamed for crimes they did not commit, but were in fact the very victims—are speaking up. The justice which the 12 maids call for, delivered from the dark shadows of Hades where they have been abandoned, is perhaps finally being heard in the twenty-first century.
The Penelopiad ran from Feb. 27 to March 4 in the Black Box Theater. Congratulations to Ms. Moler and the cast and crew for a smart and dazzling performance.