Review: THE PENELOPIAD at Goodman Theatre

Artistic Director Susan V. Booth’s production runs through March 31, 2024.

By: Mar. 17, 2024
Review: THE PENELOPIAD at Goodman Theatre
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Retellings of ancient Greek mythology and texts have been the subject of many theater productions — and now Goodman Theatre Artistic Director Susan V. Booth puts her own spin on Margaret Atwood’s decidedly feminist tale THE PENELOPIAD. THE PENELOPIAD is a reimagining of the story of Odysseus’s’ wife Penelope, who waits 20 years for his return from the Trojan War. Notably, Atwood’s play focuses on Penelope and 12 of her maids, who are hanged upon Odysseus’s return for supposed treason and conspiracy with Penelope’s slimy suitors. As with her famous novel THE HANDMAID’S TALE, Atwood uses THE PENELOPIAD as a device to convey the horrors and abuse committed against women. While Penelope feels confined to her role as dutiful wife, her maids likewise long for the freedom she has as a woman who’s not enslaved like they are. Atwood’s points are valid and mirror the gender inequalities and abuse women still experience now (the original novella was penned in 2005). But THE PENELOPIAD’s feminist argument isn’t revelatory. Instead of providing truly new insight or perspective, the play rather reinforces existing (though rightfully undeniable) points. 

The play also provides a structural challenge: Because the play focuses on a 20-year-long waiting period, there’s not all that much action. Instead, Booth relies on collaborations with her design team to create visual and aural spectacles that break up the monotony of Penelope’s years-long wait. Neil Patel’s set at first appears rather bare but has many vertical tricks that are revealed. JoAnn M. Hunter’s choreography is balletic and sometimes playful, while Kara Harmon’s costume designs simultaneously evoke an homage to ancient Greece with other timeless details. Willow James’s sound design, Samuel Davis’s music compositions, and Jeremy Ramey’s music direction also ensures that the key moments in THE PENELOPIAD are underscored cleverly and musically. This is truly an ensemble piece, and Ramey in particular wisely utilizes the most talented singers in the cast (many of the women in the ensemble have musical theater backgrounds). 

THE PENELOPIAD is overall a fantastic ensemble piece, featuring Jennifer Morrison in the title role alongside 12 talented Chicago 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). 

Morrison has an even-keeled and affable (if familiar) take on Penelope. She has a grounded energy throughout the play, and though the role is big, Morrison’s expressions of emotion are rather contained. This calm, regal energy isn’t a surprising choice, but it’s one that Morrison executes capably. 

The other ensemble members are all simply listed in the program as Maids, but they also portray other characters in Penelope’s life. Even when I found the play’s action to be slowly paced and lacking in dynamics, I was consistently captivated by the ensemble’s performances. The all-female cast have all carefully studied their characters’ backstories and bring them to colorful life. 

Maya Lou Hlava is particularly impressive as the Naiad, Penelope’s mother and a water nymph, and Melantho, Penelope’s chief maid. She has a graceful, ethereal energy that suits both of those characters well. Helen Joo Lee infuses much needed comedy into the role of Helen of Troy, here imagined as an ancient Greek Queen Bee. 

Tyler Meredith is likewise dazzling as Odysseus, the leading man himself. Meredith displays her comedic chops in the role, but she also finds the just right balance between Odysseus’s braggadocious, egotistical side and a softer, more vulnerable energy in private moments with Penelope — and, of course, after returning from 20 years away from home. Together, Meredith and Morrison have an alluring chemistry as one of literature’s most iconic couples. 

THE PENELOPIAD ultimately relays a feminist message that seems as old as the original text of THE ODYSSEY itself: Women have long been confined and tortured at the hands of men, who rob them of choices and free will. It’s an important message, but the play doesn’t probe new depths to it. Still, the fine work of the Goodman’s all-female ensemble becomes the production’s greatest portrayal of female strength and the willingness to persevere against seemingly insurmountable obstacles. 

THE PENELOPIAD runs through March 31, 2024 in the Albert Theatre at Goodman Theatre, 170 North Dearborn. Tickets are $25 - $90. 

Photo Credit: Liz Lauren


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