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April 11, 2013

As told by Penelope

AU's 'The Penelopiad' shows the other side of Greek tragedy

ANDERSON, Ind. — Greek tragedy is rife with epic tales of sorrow, morality and fantasy.

Homer’s “Odyssey” tells of the hero Odysseus and his 20-year journey through the Trojan War and journey to Ithaca. Everyone thought he was dead. While he was gone, his wife Penelope had to deal with numerous suitors.

In 2005, author Margaret Atwood wrote a novella, “The Penelopiad,” giving Penelope the chance to tell her side of the epic wait for Odysseus’ return. It carries all the traits of a Greek tragedy but displays a current wit, charm and insight.

Under the caring guidance of guest director Richard J. Roberts, a committed cast of 13 women is offering a compassionate and pleasing theatrical version of “The Penelopiad” this weekend and next at Byrum Hall. Performances are today and Saturday at 7:30 p.m.  Also,  performances are 7:30 p.m. on Thursday, April 18; Friday, April 19, and Saturday, April 20.

The audience doesn’t need to know all the specifics of “The Odyssey,” but it would help to do a quick Internet search where you can find most of Atwood’s easy-to-read book.

Penelope marries Odysseus, gives birth to their son Telemachus and sees Odysseus off to war. Penelope is cousin to Helen of Troy and grows jealous of the beautiful Helen. After years of Odysseus’ disappearance, Penelope is inundated with suitors. She holds them off saying she’ll announce her selection after making a shroud for her father-in-law.

But each night, her 12 maids help her unravel the shroud — stalling the selection. The maids are instructed by Penelope to spy on the suitors; some go a bit further. Odysseus returns; he kills the suitors and the maids, believing they have betrayed his kingdom.

On the Byrum stage, this tragedy is lit in blood red lights; the maids’ hanging is done in effective silhouette. But long before then, patrons should have noticed the work of scenery designer James Schumacher and lighting designer Christian McKinney. The significance of ropes dominates their symbolism — starting with the pre-show opening where maids walk like ghosts through a rope jungle.

Of the performers, Kelsey Miller is stunning as Penelope. In previous shows, Miller has taken command of her scenes and her experience reigns here. Her direct and authoritative delivery helps define Penelope’s strengths, starting with her opening line, “Now that I’m dead, I know everything.”

As Odysseus, Yara Elaine is fittingly tough while showing deep affection for Penelope.

The theatrical adaptation of “Penelopiad” includes song lyrics but director Roberts has wisely allowed AU student Eric Butts to score music for the performance. He captures the proper moods using twinkling keyboards to send Odysseus off to war and

The play, which runs about 95 minutes, offers a positive bonding experience for parents and their teenage-and-older daughters. And “The Penelopiad” provides Greek tragedy with accessible modern dialogue where we find great Greek tragedies still resonate today.

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