If it’s been a few years — or several decades — since you studied Greek mythology, you might be nervous about attending “The Penelopiad.”
Fabrice Conte-Williamson, who is directing the drama at the University of Wisconsin-Parkside, said audience members who don’t know their “Odyssey” from an “Iliad” should have no fear.
“The themes of the drama are pretty well introduced,” he said. “This is intended for a broad audience and doesn’t get into too many details.”
“The Penelopiad” is based on a novel by Margaret Atwood (of “The Handmaid’s Tale” fame) and tells roughly the same story as “The Odyssey” does — but from the point of view of Penelope.
In the original story, she is “the faithful wife, patiently waiting at home for her husband Odysseus to return,” Conte-Williamson said.
But, as is typical of Atwood’s works, Penelope may not be the meek, loyal wife as portrayed by Homer.
Conte-Williamson chose this drama due to his love for Greek mythology, along with a chance to “hear an unexpected narrative perspective.”
By flipping the focus of the story from the male hero Odysseus to his wife back at home, the drama “celebrates hearing from people we don’t often hear from in literature,” Conte-Williamson said. “People in power have always had a platform, but other voices have not. This is a chance to tell a different story.”
Delaina Kuzelka, a junior theater arts major at UW-Parkside who plays the role of Penelope, echoes his comments on elevating the voices of women and marginalized communities.
“The show was entirely developed as a collaborative, creative effort and features original music, singing and movement,” Kuzelka said. “It is like nothing else we’ve ever presented on our stages.”
Also featured in the story is a Greek Chorus made up of Penelope’s 12 maids.
“We get to hear their perspectives, too, which is so rare in Greek mythology,” Conte-Williamson said. “The chorus members play all the characters in the story.”
Casting for the “maids” is flexible, Conte-Williamson said, with the UW-Parkside production featuring seven women and six men.
A lot of the cast, he said, “are first-year students. This is a great opportunity for them.”
One key feature is the play's music.
The text contains lyrics for songs performed by the Greek Chorus, in styles including a ballad, a sea shanty and even a kids’ jump-roping song.
“The maids sing and dance in the show,” Conte-Williamson said. “Kevin Gray, a faculty member who does our sound design, wrote the music for the lyrics. He’s wonderful and composes music so quickly for us.”
This production also offers the chance for what TV series call cross-promotion.
“English students here study ‘The Odyssey,’ and they are coming to see the show,” Conte-Williamson said.
The production is a collaborative project, Conte-Williamson said.
“The students are taking on a lot of roles, in addition to their roles on stage,” he said. “We have original music and original choreography. We have a student in charge of the props and another one doing the lighting design. It’s been a great challenge for the students. A lot of artistic freedom can be scary, but that’s also how the students develop skills.”
When asked why someone should come to this production, Conte-Williamson offered several reasons.
“It’s free, it’s live and it’s a fun show,” he said. “It’s not a tragedy at all and will be an engaging night at the theater. As they say, that’s entertainment.”