Giving a voice to the brave, resourceful women of The Odyssey in the engaging, theatrical The Penelopiad

The ensemble in The Penelopiad—photo courtesy of George Brown College

The George Brown Theatre School class of 2017 closes its 2016-17 season with Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad (directed by Sue Minor) and David Ives’ new version of Georges Feydeau’s A Flea in Her Ear (directed by Todd Hammond and Jordan Pettle) in the Michael Young Theatre at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts, located in Toronto’s Distillery District. I caught The Penelopiad last night.

The Penelopiad is a retelling of The Odyssey from Penelope’s point of view, told with an all-female cast. Featuring the overlooked, abandoned and condemned women usually relegated to the background while Odysseus and his band of brothers are off for 20 years, fighting in the Trojan War, and having scrapes and adventures with various gods and monsters, it also provides a perspective of the 12 maids, executed for their licentious behaviour with Penelope’s would-be suitors.

Speaking to us from the Underworld after her death, Penelope (Kyrah Harder) starts her tale with the foot race for her hand, won by the short-legged Odysseus (Gabriella Albino), who thwarts his opponents by getting them drunk before the event. Brought into his parents’ household, she finds herself ruled by his disapproving mother Queen Anticlera (Emily Cully) and fastidious nursemaid Eurycleia (Lucy Meanwell). With the running of the house—and even the raising of her child Telemachus (Kayla Farris)—taken over by others, she resorts to weaving to pass the time.

Penelope’s role changes when Odysseus’s time away grows longer, his mother dies and his father King Laertes (Morgan St. Onge) wanders off, losing his mind; and finds herself forced to take over the running of the kingdom and Odysseus’s business affairs as she patiently awaits his return. When 10 years turns to 20, various suitors appear on her doorstep, circling like vultures and making themselves at home without invitation. Taking the 12 youngest maids into her confidence, she hatches a plan to keep the aggressive young men at bay. She tells the men she will choose a husband once she’s finished her father-in-law’s burial shroud. Each day, she and her 12 maids weave; each night, they undo their day’s work. The maids distract the suitors with attention and flirting; and when the suitors take out their frustrations by raping the maids, Penelope entreats them to hold fast—buying time until Odysseus returns.

Not apprised of Penelope’s plan, Telemachus and Eurycleia are mortified at the goings-on in the palace. And when Odysseus returns, he takes his revenge on the suitors; also unaware of what Penelope and the maids have been doing out of loyalty to him and to keep his kingdom safe, he punishes the maids. It is only through Eurycleia’s entreaty that he doesn’t execute all the maids—but just the 12 closest to Penelope.

While Penelope and her 12 maids prove themselves as cunning and steadfast as any man, in the end they are subject to the will and whims of men, who ultimately hold the balance of power.

A masterful piece of storytelling from a feminist perspective, the ensemble captures the edgy humour and despairing tragedy of this journey. Harder does a lovely job with the wry wit, desperate longing and firm resolve of Penelope. Haunted by her failure to protect them, she is shunned by the maids even after death. Lovely chemistry with Albino’s charming, wily and adventurous Odysseus; it is a complex relationship, for while Odysseus treats her with tender respect, he can’t help but succumb to the wanderlust that draws him away from her—even after death.

Stand-outs include Caroline Bell’s vain and flirty Helen (yes, that Helen and Penelope’s cousin) and Justine Christensen’s watery, ethereal Naiad (Penelope’s mother). Emily Cully brings in icy imperiousness to Queen Anticlera (Odysseus’s mother) and Tymika McKenzie-Clunis gives a hilarious turn as her pet goat. Lucy Meanwell also brings some comedy as Odysseus’s doting, gossiping and well-meaning but bossy nursemaid.

With shouts to the design team for bringing this otherworldly environment to life: Jackie Chau (set), Erin Gerofsky (costumes) and Nick Blais (lighting); and to the ensemble for arranging the music to Atwood’s words, in song and soundscape.

Giving a voice to the brave, resourceful women of The Odyssey in the engaging, theatrical The Penelopiad.

The Penelopiad continues at the Young Centre in the Michael Young Theatre until April 22; click here for ticket and pass info or book by calling the box office at 416-866-8666.  A Flea in Her Ear also runs until April 22; online tix available. It’s a great chance to see emerging acting talent before they head out into their careers.

You can also keep up with George Brown Theatre’s class of 2017 on Twitter and Facebook.

And check out the trailer for The Penelopiad here:

A trip through time with family, country & loss of innocence in the charming, poignant Cavalcade

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Lillian Scriven & Michael Ricci as Jane & Robert Marryot in Cavalcade – photos by Andrew Oxenham

George Brown Theatre opened its 2016-17 season last night at the Young Centre for the Performing Arts (located in Toronto’s Distillery District) with Nöel Coward’s Cavalcade, directed by A.D. James Simon, with musical direction by J. Rigzin Tute and choreography by Robert McCollum.

Cavalcade follows the lives of two intertwined families, the Marryots and their servants the Bridges, as they live through significant historical events, including the Boer War, the death of Queen Victoria, the sinking of the Titanic and WWI. From New Year’s Eve 1899 to the same night in 1929 and into New Year’s day 1930, the story is told through scenes of daily life and musical numbers.

The Cavalcade ensemble is comprised of George Brown Theatre School’s third year graduating class of 2017 (in alphabetical order): Gabriella Albino, Caroline Bell, Michael Boyce, Justine Christensen, Emily Cully, Genevieve DeGraves, Seamus Dillon-Easton, Kayla Farris, Jocelyn Feltham, Kyrah Harder, Patrick Horan, Chase Jeffels, Evan MacKenzie, Cora Matheson, Tymika McKenzie-Clunis, Lucy Meanwell, Thomas Nyhuus, Lucas Penner, Michael Ricci, Jake Runeckles, Lillian Scriven, Morgan St. Onge and Parmida Vand.

As Jane Marryot, Scriven anchors the show with a lovely combination of game stiff upper lip and moving emotional response to events that impact her family and country. And we see the kids grow up and move through various life milestones: the Marryots’ sons Edward (the dutiful elder son, played with a twinkle in the eye by Nyhuus) and Joseph (the younger, impetuous son, played with Puckish charm by MacKenzie), and the Bridges’ daughter Fanny (DeGraves, who brings a lovely arc from the wide-eyed adorable child to the slinky nightclub performer).

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Jake Runeckles, Lucas Penner & Michael Boyce performing by the seaside

There are some great moments of comic relief, notably at a night at the theatre in a play within the play called Mirabelle, featuring some fine musical antics from Matheson, Penner, Albino and Jeffels (featuring stand-out vocals from Matheson and Albino); and some seaside entertainment from Boyce, Penner (who also plays a mean ukulele) and Runeckles (who also supplies piano accompaniment throughout and does a delightful tap dance break). Musical moments are capped off by a lovely rendition of Coward’s “Twentieth Century Blues” by DeGraves in a wistful and world-weary welcome to 1930, leading into a chaotic epilogue that fast-forwards through the remainder of an astoundingly volatile, wondrous and quixotic century.

As we travel through time in Britain’s history, from the Victorian to the Edwardian age – and a fast-forward Epilogue finale through the remainder 20th century – we see how the major events of the age test her people’s resilience and fortitude. Perhaps more importantly, there’s a loss of innocence; the sometimes violent changes that occur as the world grows into more of a global village, and the ever quickening pace of life changes people irrevocably. And one can’t help but look back with fondness on – what looks like from the present point of view – a simpler, gentler time.

With shouts to set and costume designer Brandon Kleiman, especially for the stunning bejeweled purple frocks are stunning; lighting designer Siobhan Sleath for some lovely atmospheric effects; and stage manager Debbie Read for holding it all together.

A trip through time with family, country and loss of innocence in the charming, poignant Cavalcade.

Cavalcade runs at the Young Centre in the Tank House Theatre space until Nov 19; get your advance tix online or by calling the box office at 416-866-8666. It’s a great chance to see some exciting emerging talent before they head out into their careers.

You can also keep up with George Brown Theatre’s class of 2017 on Twitter.