In The Testaments, her recent sequel to The Handmaid’s Tale, Margaret Atwood explores the character of Aunt Lydia: the brutal authority figure who, Atwood reveals, was secretly working to undermine the repressive government of Gilead. Did Aunt Lydia’s good intentions justify her complicity in the abuse of the vulnerable handmaids placed under her supervision?
Atwood explored similar territory in The Penelopiad, a 2005 novella the author adapted into a 2007 play that’s now getting a solid staging from Theatre Unbound at Gremlin Theatre. The piece tells the story of the mythical Penelope from her own perspective, but also surrounds her with a chorus of maids who won’t let her off the hook for her role in their own suffering and deaths.
Yes, deaths. You know everyone’s dead, because (a) it’s been a few millennia, and (b) we’re told as much at the outset, when Penelope (Audrey Johnson) greets us from Hades. Penelope’s got plenty of company down there, including her famously beautiful cousin Helen (Eva Gemlo), who’s still followed around by a drooling pack of men because “desire does not die with the body,” Helen observes. “Only the ability to satisfy it.”
In Atwood’s pithy and accessible language, Penelope recounts the circumstances of her tragic life. She was a young bride to Odysseus (Danielle Krivinchuk), bearing him a testy son (Haley Haupt, going full Slytherin) only to see her husband take off to retrieve Helen from Troy. That takes him a while: There's a reason they call it an "odyssey."
During his absence, Penelope enlists her maids to help distract the wolfish suitors who prowl around trying to take her hand after the presumed death of Odysseus. The maids enjoy conspiratorial slumber parties with their boss, but you know the women’s plot isn’t going to end well.
Director Julie Phillips leads a well-rehearsed ensemble; production notes explain that every artist involved in the show, whether onstage or off, is femme or female. Several actors also occasionally play instruments, under the musical direction of performer/composer Rhiannon Fiskradatz, to score the action or accompany the chorus’ frequent interludes of song. Gemlo proves particularly talented, straddling a cello or strumming a mandolin between darkly amusing appearances as the smoldering, self-involved Helen.
The Gremlin stage is a tight space for such a large cast and an epic tale, but the performers make efficient use of flexible props and set elements designed by Ursula K. Bowden. A tablecloth, for example, is kept taut between sticks held by chorus members crouching underneath. That emphasizes the vulnerability of the maids, who are costumed by Alexandra Gould in red hooded tunics that evoke the ominously iconic robes worn by Atwood's handmaids.
If you appreciate the author’s insights into the corrosive effects of patriarchy and the moral dilemmas faced by good people with bad choices, you’ll enjoy this haunting production of one of her lesser-known works. You’ll also never read The Odyssey the same way again.
550 Vandalia St., St. Paul
Theatreunbound.com; through December 1