Wendy Scott as Penelope is at her best as a loving “mother” to her maids—and as an equally guilty party to their eventual deaths. Her round eyes seek absolution in the audience.
Penelope speaks to the audience from a hazy present in Hades, the underworld, where forms exist in a state of “bonelessness, liplessness, breastlessness.” The script, adapted by Margaret Atwood from her novella of the same name, contains the beauty and wit for which Atwood is celebrated. Penelope, recounting her half-godly lineage, explains, “It never hurts to be of semi-divine birth. Or it never hurts immediately.”
Suddenly, 12 young women emerge from the long, richly colored silks hanging from the ceiling. In the Odyssey these daughters of slaves were hanged, as Penelope guiltily reminds us. Her involvement in their deaths unspools throughout the two-hour play. The 12 fluid silks on stage could be spectral illustrations of the young maids’ fates.
“I asked, wouldn’t it be great to hang the maids?” director Julie Thudium told me during rehearsals. “And my colleague said, why don’t you?”
The play contains equal parts acting and aerial acrobatics. The fabrics and the way the maids use them in the storytelling is bodily and emotionally affecting. In Hades the silks serve as ghostlike shrouds, while in Ithaca they become Greek columns and water. As the maids weave and unweave, ascending and dangling from their silks (while singing a song that becomes a creepy incantation), the women merge with the fabric, transforming into otherworldly figures. Although Penelope delivers the monologues, the maids and their silks are a constant, engulfing presence.
We are physically presented by so many women’s stories—the striking movement of their bodies, the hum of their songs and murmurs—that their message seems to swallow Homer’s enduring epic.
Shortly after the marriage, Odysseus must leave his new bride for the brutal Trojan War. We hear snippets of the distant action, but our attention remains with Penelope and her maids, who must contend with raising a son, Telemachus, and fending off suitors who hope to acquire the fortunes of Odysseus. Among all the action are the songs and collective voice of the maids. When it is their turn to speak, they often do so in chorus, a wave of accusation that crashes on Penelope and the audience. Their story is not necessarily one of their deaths, but of the injustice of their lives.
Wendy Scott as Penelope is at her best as a loving “mother” to her maids—and as an equally guilty party to their eventual deaths. Her round eyes seek absolution in the audience as she explains, “In retrospect, I can say that my actions were ill-considered and caused harm. But I was running out of time and becoming desperate. I had to use every ruse and stratagem at my command.” Despite Penelope’s culpability in her maids’ deaths, Scott makes her an empathetic figure, entreating but thoughtful.
Onstage we see Scott’s Penelope grow from a timid teenager to a resilient, mature adult. Her gathering strength makes the rape and eventual execution of her maids all the more disturbing. In order to protect herself, Penelope has sent her lambs to the lion’s den. The atrocities the suitors enact are stark yet hidden as figures are projected onto the familiar blue silk in the second act, and cries of fear echo to the towering ceilings. It is a sobering moment in a play peppered with sly wit, a reminder of the peril impoverished and enslaved women face and have faced in wartime for centuries. Although Penelope soothes and nurses her violated slaves, she has inadvertently branded them as scheming swindlers to the rest of Ithaca, for which Odysseus has them hanged.
The layers and weight of women’s stories are a part of the brilliance of Atwood’s play and Mother Road’s telling. We are physically presented by so many women’s stories—the striking movement of their bodies, the hum of their songs and murmurs—that their message seems to swallow Homer’s enduring epic. It is not a tale of Odysseus or Cyclops or Circe, but instead becomes one of the women who were left behind. The maids promise Penelope “we’re all here too/ the same as you/ and now we follow you, we find you/ now we call/ to you to you,” and we can’t help but understand their vow as one for us too.