Rise of the Maids

Female footnotes from an ancient myth—reanimated in Alberta

By Peter Worden

See Alberta Theatre Projects’ play The Penelopiad (Sep 21–Oct 9), and your ticket will be ripped before you enter the theatre. The relinquished “stub” is called a counterfoil. 

In the annals of ancient Greece, myths are peripatetic tales of battle and virtue—Homer’s Iliad and Odyssey among them. From Homer to Shakespeare to Joyce, it was always Odysseus, the Greek archetype of heroism and cunning, who was the big-ticket star. His wife, Penelope, and her maids were, as such, the stubs, torn off long ago and all but forgotten. 

“The maids for millennia were footnotes,” says ATP’s artistic director, Vanessa Porteous. “They were casualties of war. Collateral damage. This play rescues their story.”

Penelope’s servants are hanged at the end of the Odyssey. Like Penelope, they were loyal to their king, dutiful until death and scarcely mentioned throughout perpetuity of the myth. Until now. The Penelopiad, written by Margaret Atwood and directed today by Porteous, provides Penelope and her maids a reprieve from Hades to finally—after a millennium or two—tell their side of the story.  

Atwood introduces the adaptation of The Penelopiad from book to a play as “an echo of an echo of an echo of an echo of an echo of an echo.” The play is the ricocheted retelling of a myth through the crooked, diffusing hall of time, and invariably with each incantation the thrust, tone and time of the story changes and new significance is added.

As Porteous prepares her all-female cast of 11, the importance of the three aforementioned T’s becomes apparent. The director has opted for a “thrust” (as opposed to proscenium) stage, one that juts out into the audience; it’s round because the questions raised in the play are likewise circular, she says, with neither beginning nor end. The “tone” is lambent. No illusions. Violin music. It deals delicately with hard questions of equality without dizzying the audience or becoming what Atwood calls (to paraphrase her) “another stick with which to beat us.” As for “time,” it’s 2010, and “quite a few women run theatre companies,” Porteous says. “There’s been a sea change.” What is still rare are women like her, running large companies like ATP.

As Penelope has been given a voice, so too has Porteous, ATP’s first female artistic director. While far from being her first gig—Porteous is a renowned freelance director—the ATP directorship is her first go at choosing an entire lineup of performances. (“A huge difference,” she says, explaining that while the average Calgarian might not take notice, “for us it’s big.”) Leading the season with The Penelopiad, then, is quite on purpose; it represents Porteous shouting ATP’s new identity as a theatre company. “We are [our] shows,” she says. “There’s no denying the simplicity of that.”

While Canada’s National Arts Centre and the UK’s Royal Shakespeare Company premiered a spectacular international co-production of The Penelopiad in London and Ottawa in 2007, it wasn’t until November last year that Porteous began to conceive a much simpler—and at the same time more daring—mounting of the play.

She was struck by The Penelopiad’s potential while watching a 10-minute workshop in Toronto. The play was simple, witty and ingenious. The actors—barely rehearsed, scripts in hand and using blocks as props—excited Porteous, but she checked that excitement, reminding herself that no big Alberta theatre company would ever go for it. The average local cast numbers four actors, and even though ATP is one of the bigger companies in Alberta, a cast of 11 would be challenging for them, as it would for any company in Canada. “I wouldn’t be surprised if Stratford does it—Stratford is 20 times bigger than us,” Porteous remembers thinking. But then she paused, thinking to herself: “Wait, you’re the freaking artistic director. You could do something like that.”

Atwood introduces the adaptation of the The Penelopid as “an echo of an echo of an echo of an echo…”

 

To say history repeats itself is not accurate, at least not in the case of The Penelopiad or any Greek myth. Rather than repetition, myth tends toward the recursive—that is, the same but not exactly the same. Archetypes of Greek literature—Odysseus and Penelope, for example—are fallible, vicarious exemplars of modern life lessons. They are characters on an alternative plane whose voices, like any echo, exist in our reality when and wherever they are given space and time. We borrow from antiquity their lessons, re-asking ourselves the same questions they asked, to help solve modern quandaries. Thus, by merit of Atwood’s book and Porteous’s play, Penelope and her maids are our Canadian/Albertan contemporaries despite being nearly tossed out of existence some 2,500 years ago.

In Homer’s Odyssey, wily Odysseus, King of Ithaca, leaves for 20 years, journeying to and from Troy, tricking Trojans and grappling with goddesses (among other adventures). His wife, the patient Penelope, stays at home in Ithaca, awaiting Odysseus and fending off an increasingly vicious rabble of suitors. She tells them she’ll finish weaving a royal shroud before choosing one of them to remarry, but each night, she and her maids gather to unravel it. Upon his return, Odysseus, in a fit of pique, slaughters the suitors. He then commands that the maids be put to death for having intimately collaborated with the suitors (i.e., they were raped) thereby cleansing the “pollution in [his] palace.” 

Take a step back (or skip ahead, depending on your perspective) to Atwood’s play. Porteous, like Penelope, leads her cast into a ravelling and unravelling of a different sort. “She didn’t arm the maids, she chose female strategies,” says Porteous, putting herself in Penelope’s sandals. “Partly, that’s what doomed her. Questions of responsibility [weigh] on your mind, creating something together with these maids, and you must be careful what you ask of people.”

After seeing the rough version of The Penelopiad in Toronto, Porteous did two things. First she called big-ticket Alberta actor Meg Roe (The Syringa Tree, 2008), who will star as Penelope and whom Porteous calls her personal muse. “There are actors who you forget are acting and believe everything they say, and that’s Meg,” she says. Then Porteous did some math. With Roe, plus 10 maids, the play would cost $100,000. With the symbolism lost on no one, she asked 10 well-off women around the province to support the play.

Set to premiere this month at the Martha Cohen Theatre in Calgary, The Penelopiad is neither didactic nor determinate. It is a messy matter of values and ambiguous rights and wrongs, and invites endless questions about how we live our lives today. To Porteous, Penelope’s maids are Canadian soldiers, sweatshop workers, her audience, her cast. “In Canada, we don’t like to think of ourselves as anything less than egalitarian,” she says. “But most people don’t have access to the people who make decisions. So for us to take this on, it’s big, but it’s exactly what we should be doing.

The play invites questions about how we live: the maids are today’s soldiers, sweatshop workers etc.

 “At a basic level, theatre asks: What does it mean to be a human being and what should we be doing with our time?” These are difficult, fundamentally philosophical questions, but as Porteous puts it, “They’re really awesome questions to ask.” 

Like the Odyssey, The Penelopiad is filled with questions, not answers. However, unlike the Odyssey, The Penelopiad scrounges through history’s trash bin for a missing piece, a counterfoil of the original story. In drama and literature, a well-known role is that of the “foil,” a character who parallels and contrasts the main character. If one were to be so presumptuous as to add another term to art’s lexicon, one might add “counterfoil”: n. character(s) of marginal mention in a classic work who are given a new, main-stage attention. Penelope is the counterfoil to Odysseus—a character no less important but much less known, for the simple fact that the human narrative went on without her. Albertans are lucky that Porteous picked up this forgotten stub of history.  

Peter Worden is the assistant editor at Alberta Views. He keeps all his ticket stubs for posterity.

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