Women, war, history (and Naomi Watts)

I’ve been tardy in writing a review of Margaret Atwood’s “The Penelopiad”, which opened at The Arts Club last week. I’ve been reluctant, I think, because I felt unmoved by the production.

The show is not without its merits. Atwood’s lyrical script retells the Odyssey myth from Penelope’s perspective. She’s stuck at home on Ithaca while her footloose husband Odysseus meanders around the Mediterranean. She has a busy kingdom to run, maids to manage, suitors to stave off and a sass-mouthed son to mother. The plot, as skeletal as certain adversaries of Jason in another Greek myth, doesn’t really get started until the second act. The script isn’t exactly ripe with gripping drama, and feels a little padded out by a number of songs.

Meg Roe is luminous and regal as Penelope, telling her story from Hades. Through much of the play, her role is passive–she recounts events as a kind of Greek Stepford wife, all smiles and warmth. The supporting cast, ten women who play Penelope’s favourite maids, as well as sundry other roles, were also strong. I did wonder a bit about the decision to cast all women in these roles in 2011. It felt like a rather 20th-century, Top Girls kind of stunt casting. Colleen Wheeler was suitably gloomy and masculine when she played Odysseus, but why cast that role as a woman? Perhaps I’m alone in this, but Wheeler and Roe’s most intimate scenes were inevitably overlaid with my constant awareness that “she’s pretending to be a he”. Obviously that was Atwood or director Vanessa Porteous’s intent, but I couldn’t glean why.

Other production elements–the nautical set with a floating platform that doubled as a marriage bed, the watery lighting and the on-stage sound design and music–were all cohesive and well-executed.

And yet, I left the theatre with a case of the ‘mehs’. The director, in her show note, argues for the play’s relevance (PDF):

Nowadays, most of us don’t have maids, but, especially in our blessedly peaceable land of Canada, are we really aware of the impact we have on the “invisible ones” whose lives we touch? The people who make the clothes we buy; the people “downstream” from us, as they say in environmental circles; the people who live in countries far away, the mothers and sisters and daughters of the nations with whom we are in conflict?

That’s a dubious question to ask of Arts Club attendees in 2011. They’re locavores, crafters and sustainability connoisseurs. From Slumdog Millionaire to The Story of Stuff, few groups are more aware of how their consumption or their country’s politics impacts people in the developing world.

In short, The Penelopiad was a well-made play that wasn’t to my liking. It’s plot was too turgid, and its themes too tired for me to find it particularly engaging. As the Internet kids say, your mileage may vary. The play runs through November 20 at the Stanley Theatre.

You’ll pardon the awkward segue, but speaking of women and history, I wanted to share this video I helped write for one of our clients, Global Zero. It features Naomi Watts and Valerie Plame Wilson, the CIA agent Watts played in “Fair Game”. Global Zero is making the case that, in these recessionary times, nuclear weapons are too expensive. The world will spend US $1 trillion on them over the next decade.


  1. I was dazzled by this show. I loved virtually every moment of it, and for me Wheeler and Roe’s chemistry was a key part of that. Adding a man to the stage would have changed the dynamic significantly, I think. I wonder if the performances have improved over the play’s run? I really felt this was the best show I’ve seen from the Arts Club in years.

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