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The Penelopiad runs from Tues, Jan 8 till Sun, Feb 10 at Buddies, 12 Alexander St. buddiesinbadtimes.com
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The Penelopiad: Atwood for outsiders

Michael Lyons on Nightwood's play about brutality and feminism

01.08.2013

“It’s about exploring sexuality. Heterosexuality, but a dark side. A dark, kind of animalistic side,” says Kelly Thornton, artistic director of Nightwood Theatre and director of the upcoming iconoclastic production of The Penelopiad. Written by prolific Canadian author Margaret Atwood, The Penelopiad is a reimagining of the epic Greek poem The Odyssey. In the story, the warrior king Odysseus has been away from home for 20 years, 10 at war and the other 10 spent on his return. He comes back in disguise to discover his wife, Penelope, inundated by suitors, and with the help of his son and servants, sets out to slay all 108 suitors. Thornton explains that Atwood was fascinated by the carnage, especially the execution of the dozen maids. “She said she read The Odyssey, and the hanging of the maids at the end is reduced to like, one line or two.” After all, what’s 12 more bodies on the pile?
 
The play centres on the character of Penelope, played by the indelible Megan Follows, of Anne of Green Gables fame. “It’s Penelope coming to terms with her own accountability,” says Thornton. “She didn’t tie the nooses and hang them. She didn’t even order the hanging, but she turned a blind eye and didn’t protect them. She also put them on the front lines: ‘You take care of the suitors; oh, sorry, you got raped.’ Atwood is doing some really interesting things.”
 
“It’s a dark and funny play,” adds Denyse Karn, producer and designer of the production. “If you think of anyone that knows Margaret Atwood, the wit that she has, but it’s all with this dark quality to it. I think it’s intriguing because of that. I think we have a stellar cast of 13 women, which you don’t get to see often onstage.” The actors will perform as women and men, essentially playing the victims and oppressors.
 
So many gay men love strong female icons, and this is not a frivolity. Not only do strong women represent rising above oppression in a sexist society, but their struggles mirror the ones faced by the gay community in a world that treats them as second-class citizens. “Where are all of the men?” wonders Thornton. “The progressive men? Not the men who are keeping us down but the other men. Why aren’t they standing with us? It’s time to talk because ultimately hatred and oppression that is perpetrated on women, it’s a different colour, but it’s the same hatred that’s perpetrated on the gay community. The women are victims in this piece, but I want to explore men not just as the perpetrator but the victims of their gender roles.”
 
“The next wave of feminism has to include all of the men,” says Karn. “We need to recognize that the men are just as important in the ideas of feminism. It’s a much bigger issue in terms of gender than just us as the feminist theatre company, and Buddies as the gay company. That’s what’s brilliant with what Brendan is doing. He’s holding up that definition of queer, and by including Nightwood within that definition of queer we start opening up that idea of looking at the bigger picture, of what that means to all of us.”
 
The Penelopiad comes to Toronto after an overdue hiatus, according to Thornton. “I think it’s a major theatrical event, if you ask me,” she laughs. “I think The Penelopiad, it was such a big thing when it premiered at the Royal Shakespeare Company, and then it came to the National Arts Centre, and everyone was waiting for it to come to Toronto, and then it never did. Atwood lives here; it just seems like Toronto, especially with this powerhouse cast. I think it’s the perfect marriage, Nightwood and Buddies, a match made in heaven, and we’re hoping to keep that relationship for seasons to come.”
 
The Penelopiad runs from Tues, Jan 8 till Sun, Feb 10 at Buddies, 12 Alexander St. buddiesinbadtimes.com
 
Michael Lyons is starting the New Year with a challenge for all gay men to come out as feminists.

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