The Penelopiad Review – Her Side of the Story

(L-R, in back) Laura Savage, Hannah Whitley, Elizabeth Laidlaw, Allison Sill, Aja Alcazar and Helen Joo Lee. (In front) Jennifer Morrison
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Certain stories can only be described as epic. The decade-long adventures of the ancient Greek hero Odysseus, as told by the poet Homer in The Odyssey, are certainly among them. But what of Penelope, the wife he left behind? Homer’s poem offers glimpses of her life as she wards off suitors eager to claim power by marrying her after her husband’s presumed death. But Margaret Atwood, legendary writer and feminist voice, goes further, centering Penelope and her twelve beloved maids in The Penelopiad, now in production at the Goodman Theatre, under the direction of artistic director Susan V. Booth.

(L-R) Tyler Meredith and Jennifer Morrison

The story starts after Penelope’s death, with the queen of Ithaca narrating her life’s story from the underworld. Shortly after she begins, her twelve maids appear skipping rope and singing, a cutesy melody that contrasts with their dark description of themselves as “the ones you killed.” As Penelope proceeds to describe her early life and eventual marriage to Odysseus, The Maids continue to interject, comparing Penelope’s life of wealth and privilege with their own poverty and constant toil. Eventually, Odysseus leaves to fight in the Trojan War and does not return for twenty years, leaving Penelope to run the kingdom and cope with an influx of rude and misogynistic suitors. In a moment of trademark cleverness, she tells the suitors she will choose a new husband once she has finished weaving a burial shroud for her father-in-law. She and The Maids then conspire to weave the shroud by day and unpick their progress each night so it is never complete.

Jennifer Morrison, Maya Lou Hlava, Allison Sill, Hannah Whitley, Helen Joo Lee, Noelle Kayser, Tyler Meredith and Andrea San Miguel

The play is a lot more fun than it seems like it might be. Despite the cultural heft of the original story and the ultimately tragic fate of The Maids, Atwood manages to imbue the script with plenty of fun and humor. In fact, it’s the play’s light, upbeat tone that makes its darker moments hit harder. A few of these more serious moments tread into overwrought territory (is it really necessary to wash the stage in red when discussing the mass deaths of the defeated Trojans?), but generally the balance between laughter and tears is well-struck. A scene of sexual assault is handled delicately, with the victim receiving community support rarely scene in fiction.

(L-R) Noelle Kayser, Allison Sill, Jennifer Morrison, Aja Alcazar and Laura Savage

Jennifer Morrison makes a spectacular Penelope, approaching the role with both vivacity and nuance. Morrison understands how deeply human her character is. The chorus of Maids is similarly talented across the board, slipping into and out of various characters with ease. I appreciate the diversity of women included in this all-female cast; The Maids represent a wide variety of heights, facial structures, and ethnicities, creating a sense that nearly everyone is welcome in Atwood’s world. It’s unfortunate that none of the cast are plus-sized, especially when paired with a lazy joke about the fatness (and therefore increased undesirability) of one of the suitors.

(L-R) Andrea San Miguel, Noelle Kayser, Tyler Meredith, Allison Sill, Elizabeth Laidlaw, Maya Lou Hlava, Hannah Whitley, Amira Danan, Ericka Ratcliff, Aja Alcazar, Helen Joo Lee and Laura Savage. (In front, with back turned) Jennifer Morrison

The design work here is stunning. Neil Patel’s grand set establishes the epic scale of the story while still allowing for smaller moments to take place in smaller spaces. An enormous version of Penelope’s loom is particularly remarkable and beautifully done. Lighting by Xavier Pierce pays exceptional attention to detail, ensuring what needs to be highlighted is easily seen. Costumes by Kara Harmon are a visual treat and successfully establish character traits with relatively few pieces.

(L-R) Jennifer Morrison

The Penelopiad is a revelation. It’s no wonder the words of Margaret Atwood combined with the direction of Susan V. Booth, the acting of an all-star cast, and the remarkable design work of a talented team have combined to create a play that, like the poem it draws from, can only be described as epic.

Ticket Information

Location: The Goodman Theatre, 170 N Dearborn

Dates: March 2 – 31, 2024

Tickets: $25-90. Available now at the Goodman Theatre website or by phone at 312.443.3800.

All photos by Liz Lauren.

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