(photos by Cheryl J. Hoffmann)
Of the several potent images in Luminous Theatre’s production of The Penelopiad, none is as powerful and evocative as the final gesture of the play. After the last words, the cast simply turns and leaves the space via a pedestrian bridge, back to the realm from which they materialized 90 minutes before.
It’s a beautiful moment, the actors walking slowly into darkness, the theater space suddenly empty and silent. And like all great moments in the theater, it’s also rich with meaning. Staged by director Leda Hoffman in the small pocket park under the Holton Street Viaduct, the walkway in and out of the space is the so-called “marsupial bridge” that hangs off the viaduct and spans the Milwaukee River. There is no boatman on this metaphorical River Styx (though Charon makes an appearance at the beginning of the show, as the players enter the space). But the image of the thirteen women receding into the distance is not easily forgotten.
Based on a short story by Margaret Atwood, which she later adapted into a play, The Penelopiad is essentially a biography of Penelope, wife of Odysseus, hero of the great Greek epic, The Odyssey. But it's also an “alternative” Odyssey, a look behind the heroic adventure story to uncover perils and tragedies on the periphery of a tale that lies at the heart of Western culture.
Narrated by Penelope from beyond the grave (“Now that I am dead, I know everything”), the play spans her life, and moves through the story with an eclectic variety of styles. There’s a kind of Pee Wee’s Playhouse vibe through much of production. There are songs, comic sketches, dramatic confrontations. With a few simple props, (and the swings that are permanently installed at the park), Hoffmann and her cast create playful tableaus and scenes. Penelope’s mother, a water nymph, stands on a swaying swing with a long blue crepe rippling behind her. Another swing serves as a throne, the weaving loom, and Odysseus’s legendary bow. A large hanging platform becomes Odysseus’s ship as well as the couple’s marital bed. It’s inventive theatrical storytelling that presents the ancient world at arms length.
But the tone shifts an hour into the story. Odysseus is 20 years missing, and suitors have gathered to win Penelope as a bride. The queen’s serving maids bear the brunt of their frustration, and in a scene of remarkable stillness and power, the mood of the play changes dramatically. And the story marches on to a final, remarkable transformation—the ropes that suggested the sails of Odysseus’s ship untangle in a flourish—that unveils the fate of Penelope’s maids.
Playing Penelope, Reva Fox draws you into the world with great charm, and lets Atwood’s message about the male-dominated society land solidly but lightly. The rest of the cast play a variety of parts, taking on the roles of Odysseus (Kelly Doherty), Penelope’s son Telemachus (Gwen Zupan) and the trusted servant Eurycleia (Molly Corkins).
But it’s Hoffmann’s physical staging and storytelling that take center stage here. No matter how well you know The Odyssey, moments and images from The Penelopiad will forever change the way you think of that epic journey. And the world that has been built on its foundations.