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Opening the 5th, The Penelopiad

Opening the 5th, The Penelopiad

: Poster design (detail) by Parker Wrenn (DE '12).

Next for Cornish theater, Margaret Atwood’s retelling of Homer’s tale of Odysseus’ return home from his wife’s point of view, The Penelopiad.

“Oh, what a tangled web we weave/When first we practise to deceive!” wrote Walter Scott. No deceiver is more famous for weaving than Penelope. For those who may be struggling to recall their college classics courses, Penelope was the wife of Odysseus (Ulysses), the king of Ithaca who left her to fight in the Trojan Wars (Homer’s Iliad) and became lost on his return (Homer’s Odyssey). The loyal an apparently widowed Penelope tricked a houseful of men vying to marry her by weaving each day, then secretly unraveling her work each night. The Penelopiad, the next play up in the Cornish theater department’s season, is a fascinating retelling of the classic myth from the wife’s perspective. The Penelopiad, adapted by Margaret Atwood from her celebrated novelette, is being produced under the direction of Vanessa Miller at the 9th Avenue Studios December 5-9. More information.

The trick with the weaving was, now memory is flooding back, based in Penelope’s promise to her suitors that she would choose one of the 108 (!) as a husband once her work weaving a shroud for her father-in-law was completed. Each night she would unravel the day’s work, effectively putting off the decision. And we know what happened next. Odysseus returns to Ithaca at last, disguises himself to go among the suitors and takes part in a final test to win the hand of the queen. The contest is to string the great bow of Odysseus and shoot an arrow through an array of ax heads. The suitors, being no adequate replacement for a man as macho as Odysseus, can’t even manage the first part of the test. The last contestant, the disguised Odysseus, strings the bow, shatters the ax heads and turns on the suitors, killing the lot.

What happens next is central to The Penelopiad. Redecorating his living room with the blood and guts of 108 pretenders was not apparently enough to sate the anger of Odysseus. He and his son also hanged Penelope’s 12 slave girls, who had been sleeping with the suitors, the better to keep track of them for their mistress. In the play, the story of the incident is recounted by the shade of Penelope in Hades. There, she is both haunted and assisted with the retelling by the ghosts of her handmaidens.

“Our production of The Penelopiad has evolved through a process of exploration and true collaboration,” says director Vanessa Miller. “The scenes have been created by adding layers of storytelling, music and movement each time we rehearse.  And every day new discoveries are made.  Working with a cast that is courageous and adaptive, willing to dig deep has been a great gift.  The Penelopiad is a very visual and musical play.  Thank goodness for the talents of Cornish students Adam Quillian and Thomas Speltz who have composed the music and the sound design/orchestrations, essential elements.”

Given the expansiveness of the script, the black box that is the 9th Avenue Studios space would seem at first glance an odd choice as a venue. Miller doesn’t agree. “The black box aspect is an ideal space for this show,” she says. “First, it takes place in Hades!  And it can be dark there. The depth to the space works in our favor for how the set and the staging work together.  And finally, a close connection with the audience is important as Penelope, the central character, directly addresses the audience throughout the show.”

Further reading: a webpage dedicated to quotations from The Penelopiad.

The Penelopiad December 5, 6, 7 and 9, 8:00 p.m.; December 8, 2:00 and 7:00 p.m. At the Cornish 9th Avenue Studios, 427 9th Avenue North, Seattle. For Tickets.


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