Past Reviews

Regional Reviews: Chicago

The Penelopiad
Goodman Theatre
Review by Christine Malcom

Jennifer Morrison, center, with Cast
Photo by Liz Lauren
The Goodman Theatre is staging the Chicago premiere of Margaret Atwood's The Penelopiad, marking the directorial debut of Susan V. Booth, who assumed the role of artistic director in 2022. Jennifer Morrison leads the cast of thirteen women in a meanwhile-back-in-Ithaca retelling of the Odyssey.

Originally published as a novella and only later as a play, Atwood has described The Penelopiad as a cabaret in the same vein as works by Weil and Brecht. Much of the play, though, is a monologue delivered by Penelope from the afterlife as she contemplates the fact that, even as they seek to elevate her name, storytellers reduce her to a single word: loyalty.

She also reckons with the recriminations of the twelve ill-fated maids whose help she enlisted in her plot to stymie the suitors eager to hitch themselves to the presumed-widowed Queen of Ithaca. Penelope's version of her own story is wry, bawdy, funny, petty, and filled with both horrifying peaks of violence and violence so wearying and constant that it fades into mundanity. It is thoroughly a woman's story and, on the whole, engaging and well-told.

Music and dance are woven in among the monologue and brief dramatic scenes, constituting the "cabaret" elements Atwood has referred to. Although dance (choreography by JoAnn M. Hunter) is stunningly conceived and executed, the music doesn't work as well (or perhaps it is not as consistently a value add), at least in this production. Samuel Davis's compositions are quite varied in style and all are short, making them rather difficult to enter into or connect to the specific scenes in which they appear (though one piece that calls on the maids to sing in chorus is quite beautiful and moving). The accompaniment is recorded (Jeremy Ramey, music director) and not particularly easy to hear. In one early instance at the opening night performance, two of the singers, both clearly talented and capable as evidenced by later songs, seemed to have difficulty hearing it and wandered somewhat off key.

The visual elements of the production are impressive and contribute considerably to the spell the play casts. Neil Patel's set design suggests white amphitheater steps curving from wing to wing, backed by a curtain of white strips hanging from the theater's ceiling to the top step, making for excellent shadowplay and dramatic upstage entrances. The few other set pieces include Helen of Troy's bathtub, Odysseus and Penelope's plot device of a marital bed, and the mounted row axe heads through which Odysseus shoots to prove his identity.

Each of these capably conjures up a familiar scene or the necessary vibe and is easily whisked offstage after it has served its purpose, bringing us back to the ambiguous void of Penelope's afterlife. Patel also offers two versions of Penelope's loom, one relatively realistic and its enormous counterpart, which drops in from the ceiling, comprising aerial silks that several of the maids navigate acrobatically as the women conspire against the suitors.

The lighting design by Xavier Pierce has tremendous fun with Patel's set, particularly, the curved "curtain," as he transports the characters and audience from the sea to to the ominous, shadowy corners of the court, to the intimate confines of Penelope's chambers.

The playful fluidity of the set and lighting extends to Kara Harmon's costumes. For Penelope, Harmon plays things fairly straight with an ankle-length grecian gown in deep blue-green to suggest the character's half-naiad heritage. For the maids, the color palette ranges from green to rose, to blue, and Harmon makes the interesting choice of using an athletic-wear baseline silhouette while allowing for considerable variation in the style.

As the women playing the maids step into and out of the play's other roles, Harmon adds a babydoll dress here, a shawl there, and a hoodie or a surcoat to signal a masculine character. For the suitors, she adds grotesque, fleshy padding that simply ties on to different parts of the body. The overall effect is a wonderful balance of clearly careful planning and coordination with genuine creativity and wicked humor.

Morrison has appeal for days in the lead role. The play hits the ground running with sharp, cutting wit from the get go, which she handles with admirable timing. She also pulls off Penelope's adolescent fear of a hasty marriage with real tenderness and dives in fearlessly to the character's less admirable qualities, from her low-key but unrelenting irritation at everyone's obsession with her cousin Helen to her oblivious entitlement to the sacrifices she demands of the maids. Her weary (and wary) reunion with Odysseus feels true to a woman who has been surviving by her wits (and by her ruthlessness, as needed) for years.

Each of the other actors (Aja Alcazar, Demetra Dee, Maya Lou Hlava, Noelle Kayser, Elizabeth Laidlaw, Helen Joo Lee, Tyler Meredith, Ericka Ratcliff, Andrea San Miguel, Laura Savage, Allison Sill, and Hannah Whitley) is credited as "Maid," regardless of other roles they take on. All give thoughtful, palpably human individual performances, and their absolutely seamless trading off of words within the same line of dialogue is tremendously effective.

The Penelopiad runs through March 31, 2024, at the Goodman Theatre, Albert Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn, Chicago IL. For tickets and information, please visit or call 312-443-3800.