Step aside, Odysseus — UC Irvine retells Greek classic in ‘The Penelopiad’
“Sing to me of the man, Muse, the man of twists and turns, driven time and again off course, once he had plundered the hallowed heights of Troy.” — “The Odyssey”
“The Penelopiad” — written by Margaret Atwood, known for her 1985 dystopian novel, “The Handmaid’s Tale” — reenvisions Homer’s ancient Greek classic to tell the story from the perspective of Penelope, the queen of Ithaca and wife of Odysseus who was left to fend off unruly suitors during Odysseus’ 20-year absence.
The story comes alive beneath the spotlight at UC Irvine’s Claire Trevor Theatre under the direction of third-year graduate student Sara Rodriguez.
“Whatever you expect to see, it’s not that,” Rodriguez joked. “That any idea of, well, I tell you 13 women are gonna sing and tell you a story? Great, that’s a nice image you have in your head? It’s not that.”
“The Penelopiad” is the third entry in the UCI drama department’s theme for the 2019-20 season, “Women & Co.,” which celebrates the centennial of women’s right to vote. The 19th Amendment to the U.S. Constitution was adopted in 1920.
“The idea is, with the exception of our fall musical, ‘Company,’ [the plays] are all written by women and being directed by women,” said Don Hill, chairman of the drama department.
“We’re trying to ... focus on female voices at this time that it’s really, really critical,” he said.
“The Penelopiad” meshes with that by playing with themes of power, gender and learning “the other side of any story,” Rodriguez said.
“We know a few things about Penelope,” she said. “She’s mostly known for her weaving scheme in ‘The Odyssey.’ We know she had maids who went through all these horrible things with her and who were part of that scheme. ... But we don’t know very much about them either. We know little tidbits that ‘The Odyssey’ gives us.”
The story “never has been told from a female perspective because bards traditionally were men,” Rodriguez said. “And after millennia of that, here are women who say, ‘OK, now we’re going to tell the story and we’re going to be all the men and the women in the play.’”
Work on the two-hour show, complete with its all-female cast and a musical score by second-year graduate student Luke Shepherd, began in July when stage designers met with Rodriguez to discuss the play, its themes and what they wanted to do with the production.
The stage, decorated with concrete Grecian columns, takes on what the crew described as a “Greek shape, but [using] very modern materials.” The costumes reflect that.
"['The Penelopiad’ is] a reimagining of a very old classic that’s also not a historical text,” Rodriguez said. “I really wanted to ... look at it through a contemporary lens because the text is very much a contemporary voice. It was important that, visually, we reflected that.”
Avery Reagan, a third-year graduate student and lighting designer for the show, said the lighting doesn’t just serve as a tool for visibility.
"[Light’s] really transformative with the story,” Reagan said. “We kind of live in three main worlds of the story. We live in Hades with the Underworld and then we live in this story of Ithaca and then this kind of in-between land with the story of the maids and their struggles that they’ve had to go through their whole lives.”
“It’s important to distinguish where we are in the story ... for continuity, but also to emphasize the power and the emotion that goes into the story,” she added.
Rodriguez said it also was important to the crew members that the show challenge their own expectations and that they never be entirely comfortable.
“There’s a lot of moments in this show in which the characters are treating each other poorly,” said Bradley Zipser, production stage manager and third-year graduate student. “[Rodriguez] as well as [Hill] thought it was important to bring in an intimacy director ... to make sure that the cast felt OK with what was happening onstage and that everyone was safe and comfortable and wouldn’t have any emotional trauma coming out of it.”
Casting was completed in September and rehearsals began in December, culminating in the production’s five-day run, which opened Wednesday night and will have matinee and evening showings through Sunday.
“It’s an original piece that all of [the crew] have latched onto creatively and it’s something new and challenging and we kind of break some rules that maybe modern theater audiences don’t expect us to break,” Reagan said.
“Odysseus is such an iconic character and ‘The Odyssey’ has influenced literature,” Rodriguez said. “Any adventure story is somewhat based on ‘The Odyssey,’ and we recognize Odysseus as this epic hero. I think this play also asks, ‘Well, what is the cost of that heroism?’ ... And to be clear, I’m not answering the question. I’m not answering whether it was worth it or if it wasn’t worth it.”
IF YOU GO
What: “The Penelopiad”
Where: Claire Trevor Theatre, UC Irvine, 4000 Mesa Road
When: 8 p.m. Thursday and Friday; 2 and 8 p.m. Saturday; 2 p.m. Sunday
Cost: $19 for general admission; $15 for senior citizens and groups of 10 or more; $11 for UCI students and children younger than 17. Tickets are available at www.arts.uci.edu/tickets.
10:29 AM, Feb. 10, 2020: This article was originally published at 4:39 p.m. Feb. 6 and has been updated with new information.
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