From November 9-24, Hart House Theatre presents The Penelopiad, a re-exploration of Homer’s Odyssey that focuses on the perspective of Penelope, the wife of Odysseus. Written by Canadian icon Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad chronicles the other side of the ancient Greek myth—one where Penelope speaks her truth and reflects on her version of events. Director Michelle Langille and actor Amanda Cordner, who plays Penelope, discuss their all-female ensemble, themes of accountability and empowerment, and why myths are equally relevant to a modern-day audience.
Penelope is most known for remaining faithful to Odysseus and keeping his castle safe over a span of twenty years while he fought at the Trojan War. However, upon his return, her untold hardship and fidelity is met with butchery and abuse. For Langille, the underlying story of this show is about suppressed voices and the consequences of suppressing the voices of women in particular. Thus, an all-female cast to portray this narrative was the most natural choice. “One of the things Atwood seems to do in her multiple works, like The Handmaid’s Tale—they’re cautionary and I think this piece is feminist in that it makes us look at what has happened, what continues to happen, and what could happen. It’s told through a female lens, through female voices, through female experience. And so, I think the people to speak to that are women.”
When asked how she is hoping to portray Penelope and if there had been any moment during the rehearsal process where she had to step outside her comfort zone, Cordner says, “Every day. I’m still finding her, but I’m hoping to portray her as honestly as I can. I want people to hear the ions of frustration and this voice that hasn’t been heard, ever. I think there’s an added layer, especially because this is a black female playing Penelope. What is it to silence a black female who is now speaking up? How will audiences view that portrayal and this body speaking this text?”
“I try to find her voice through moments of vulnerability. I find that I lean into the comedic aspects of it, because it makes me very comfortable or I find a lot of comfort in it. But there’s a lot of pain in this character, which Michelle beautifully encourages me to explore.”
Langille mentions that she is interested in delving into themes of guilt and accountability, and how equally problematic it is to choose to be a bystander because it’s the easy or long-withstanding route. “We are continually finding the relevance of this show: when Atwood wrote this play, it was particularly relevant and then it continues, sadly, to deepen in its relevance based on current events. The way that we direct this play now, right after something like the Kavanaugh hearings and appointment, is very different than how we would have directed six months ago or six years ago when Nightwood did it. What is the accountability of being a silent woman who is also silencing other women, but based on the given circumstances of the world?”
“We talk a lot of about being an ally and a supporter, and just because I’m being silenced, there’s always someone being silenced more than me. What is that accountability and how do we step up to those challenges and acknowledge how we can help? So, in this instance, with a woman who is of high-ranking birth still silenced by virtue of being a woman, how does her silence affect the silencing of women who are born to be subservient?”
Although The Penelopiad concerns ancient mythology, the production addresses topics, such as the treatment of women, double standards involving sexuality, and the differing roles of men and women in relationships, that are poignant in conversation happening today. Langille explains, “I think something that’s interesting about myth or fairy tale or legend is that because they are not rooted in reality, there’s a way we’re able to connect with them on a different level because we’re allowed to see it with an ‘oh, well that didn’t really happen’ lens. This can sometimes allow us to explore things a little deeper in many ways. There’s a reason why we tell these stories and sometimes, they allow us to see truth in a way we may not be able to [see otherwise], because we just shut down based on the traumatic reality of it.”
Both Langille and Cordner agree that the production has already been successful: “the process has been unbelievable. The women in the room, the people on this project, it’s a huge collaboration. We’ve been able to hit challenges where I’ve truthfully not known what the scene is supposed to be, and everyone’s wanted to figure it out together,” says Langille.
Cordner adds, “everyone’s dedication and commitment is astounding. For one person to not believe in it can really affect the energy and the forward motion of this project we’re building together. It’s amazing how much heart is going into this show. For me, I always want people to walk away thinking or to have unearthed maybe something that they didn’t think of before. Those conversations that happen as you’re walking out—that’s always my goal with theatre. I think it was Djanet Sears, she said in an interview on CBC, that she wants theatre to enchant, educate, and entertain, and that’s what I strive for. That’s success to me.”
The Penelopiad runs at Hart House Theatre from November 9-24.