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Saturday, March 26, 2011

First Person: Andrew Cuk on The Penelopiad

The chorus at the heart of Andrew Cuk's production of the Penelopiad

The Chorus Takes the Final Bow
They have become strong and a force to reckon with in their unity, one of Atwood’s very clear and not so subtle messages.
by Andrew Cuk

There comes a moment towards the end of every rehearsal process when the director must block the curtain call. Many leave this to the last dress rehearsal, as there is an old adage that it’s bad luck to do so beforehand. Others, like myself, feel the bows should be clean and well-rehearsed. Still, the staging happens at the end and not the beginning of the process. The bows are a statement of the pecking order of the actors, the last person taking the prime spot. It’s usually determined by the character—Hamlet always bows last, unless, of course, you are doing Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead.

As I contemplated the bowing order for the John Abbott College production of The Penelopiad by Margaret Atwood, I went through my repertoire of possibilities. I could stick with the traditional: the lesser characters in small groups, followed by a string of single bows ending with Penelope, the central character. As indeed, she is. Atwood adapted her novel of the same name, and the play is heavy on literary narration. Penelope tells her story of marrying Odysseus, the hero of the Trojan War, and the long twenty-year wait for him to return home. Through Penelope’s words, Atwood blows away the cobwebs from the myth and refashions it as a story for our own time.

Melanie Desjardins as Penelope,
Matthew Barker as Odysseus with chorus
I could go the democratic route, that is, the company bow. This sends a message that we are an ensemble and there are no stars, and is not a bad choice when directing a theatrical production in an educational setting. Or, I could go “concept”, and do a choreographed bow that takes into consideration the nature of the play. This extends the entertainment value all the way to the house lights coming back up.

Yet I kept thinking of what attracted me to this work in the first place, what made this narrator-based and stylized adaptation of the Greek myth call out for the chance to breathe on stage with live actors and audience. In the end, I gave the final bow to the twelve young women who form the Chorus of the 12 Maids.

In the Odyssey, Homer portrays Penelope’s maids as disloyal servants, whoring around with the suitors who have come to bully Penelope into accepting her husband as dead, and to choose one of them as her new husband and the next king of Ithaca. Atwood turns this inside out. Her maids saddle up to the suitors in order to help their beloved mistress. For their efforts, they are raped by the men, and are finally unfairly hanged by Odysseus when he returns, as Penelope waited too long to tell her husband that they were on her side. The maids pursue Penelope in Hades, where a number of the scenes in the play take place.

Melanie Desjardins (Penelope), Kora
Olsen Martineau (Telemachus), Marie-Éve Beaumont
(Ithacan maid)
Atwood uses the maids as a modern Greek chorus. They are individual characters in the scenes, but they also perform in songs, group speeches and chanted poems, including a scene where they jump rope in Hades. These scenes show glimpses of the hard lives of these slave women, yet also of their dreams and love for Penelope and each other. They band together in the afterworld, hounding Odysseus and Penelope so that the two never forget their tragic choices and actions. They have become strong and a force to reckon with in their unity, one of Atwood’s very clear and not so subtle messages.

The Chorus

The twelve cégep-aged women in our production have worked very hard to tackle the different styles of each one of these chorus moments. They have learned Allison Lynch’s haunting music that she wrote for a production last fall at the Alberta Theatre Project. They have grasped how to speak as one and many. They have practiced chanting a poem while skipping rope. They have explored the feelings of these raped and abused women. They have become a unified ensemble, so much so that when a mistake is made onstage, they correct it as a group.

So, I have given them the final bow. Certainly, all the students in the show, both on and backstage, have worked hard and should be proud of their individual and group accomplishment. But these maids, these maids. Like Penelope and Odysseus, well...they haunt me.

The Penelopiad
by Margaret Atwood
directed by Andrew Cuk
For details, click:
Poster by Maggi Macaulay


  1. Andrew Cuk is a genius.

  2. This is a Theatre Workshop production.
    The actors are not part of the professional theatre program.


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