Backstage: Penelopiad opening couldn’t be better timed, says Ron Jenkins

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Public Relations Liaison Michael D. Reid interviews director Ron Jenkins about the themes of female empowerment in The Penelopiad.


Who could have imagined that The Penelopiad, an alternately dark and amusingly subversive twist on The Odyssey, Homer’s epic Greek poem written in eighth-century BC, would have been as timely as it is in the winter of 2018, when the Canadian College of Performing Arts production opens.

Indeed, its content is even more timely than it was in 2005, when Margaret Atwood’s novella offering a bold retelling of the Odysseus myth from the perspective of the Greek hero’s long-suffering wife Penelope was published as part of a series featuring ancient myths rewritten by contemporary authors.

There are at least two reasons for this, says Ron Jenkins, the award-winning Canadian theatre director and playwright who is staging the Company C Studio Ensemble production that opens Nov. 28.

With its themes of female empowerment, double-standards and how a storyteller’s “truth” is something worth questioning, this tale set in Hades, where Penelope opines about her infamous husband Odysseus and his exploits and attempts to clear her own name, The Penelopiad has achieved newfound relevance.

It’s thanks to the emergence of the #MeToo movement, spawned by high-profile sexual harassment and assault cases that enabled women around the world to publicly share their own experiences.

“What I think is illuminating about #MeToo is how it emboldens women to speak out about it,” says Jenkins. “I’ve seen this with friends and colleagues, women who’ve been harassed or assaulted.”

Directing The Penelopiad, which is intermittently comedic but also features tragic episodes like an integral but stylized sexual assault sequence, made Jenkins reflect on how reaction to the play – like the #MeToo movement itself – could have a lot to say about men as well as women.

“What men are learning from #MeToo and from reading Margaret Atwood is perspective,” he said. “One of the courageous things about #MeToo is that men who felt they couldn’t speak up [about harassment of women] can now. The purpose is for men to go, ‘no!’”

The play’s other timely aspect, he says, is how Atwood has become more accessible than ever.

“The Handmaid’s Tale is one of the highest-rated series on TV right now. People are binge-watching that like crazy,” says Jenkins, who acknowledges that Atwood isn’t everyone’s cup of tea.

“That doesn’t worry me because I think this is an incredible piece of theatre, an exciting story told from Penelope’s point of view. It’s very theatrical. It sneaks up on you, like some parts add up to this greater whole that you don’t expect. That’s like most of her writing.”

This isn’t Jenkins’s first time helming a CCPA show.

The prolific Edmonton-based director staged the Studio Ensemble’s productions of The Great Gatsby (2015-16) and Cabaret (2017-18), and he says working with such fresh young talent is uniquely rewarding.

“You see the lightbulb going off in their heads, and they’re eager and want to learn new material and to better their craft. It’s refreshing.”

The Penelopiad is ideally suited to the Studio Ensemble, which has twelve women and three men.

“There are great parts for young women in this show, and I think that’s absolutely beautiful,” he said. “We’re trying to cobble together a way to do this. Everyone else can play maids and suitors.”

Mounting the show has not been without its challenges, he admits.

“We’ve been trying to get the comedy right, the Greek choral parts and the tragedy right,” he said. “It all lives in the same envelope. There are songs and movement pieces.”

He’s in good company, with fellow Edmontonian Laura Krewski on board as choreographer, and College co-founder and instructor Jacques Lemay handling any of the violent fight sequences.

The Penelopiad runs Nov. 28, 29, 30 and Dec. 1 at 7:30 p.m., with 2 p.m. matinees on Nov. 29 and Dec. 1 at the College’s Performance Hall, 1701 Elgin Rd.

The Dec. 1 matinee is a Relaxed Performance, which is open to everyone but provides a welcoming environment for individuals who find the traditional theatre environment challenging.

Tickets, priced from $18.50 to $27.50, are available online, or by calling 250-595-9970.