City Garage Theatre in Santa Monica presents “The Penelopiad” by award-winning Canadian writer and “The Handmaid’s Tale” creator Margaret Atwood through Dec. 18. (Paul Rubenstein/Submitted)

City Garage uses Margaret Atwood play to give classical tale a new perspective

While it is a truism that history is written by the victors, some writers excel at reframing historical tales and mythological legends from different points of view.

Chief among those talents is Margaret Atwood, the award-winning Canadian writer and creator of “The Handmaid’s Tale.” The City Garage in Santa Monica is staging one of her works through Dec. 18. “The Penelopiad” is a retelling of “The Odyssey” from the viewpoint of the long-suffering wife of Odysseus and her 12 murdered handmaids.

By giving Penelope a modern, witty and pragmatic voice, the feminist icon transforms the politics of the Greek classic by letting the women involved tell the story. Now angry in Hades, these 13 spirits tell and retell their story, haunting the men who tormented them. 

“The Penelopiad” relates that while Odysseus is gallivanting the country fighting a war for the sake of Penelope’s beautiful, shameless and aggravating cousin Helen, Penelope is running the kingdom and raising their rebellious son. 

Odysseus gets to have adventures and play the hero, but Penelope has to deal with more than 100 brutal suitors. Then when the supposedly conquering hero returns home, Penelope and the 12 faithful maids pay a tragic price.

Directed by artistic director Frédérique Michel and produced by executive director Charles Duncombe, “The Penelopiad” is performed by an all-female cast.

“One of the attractions of this play is that we have 13 women on stage and they are playing all the parts,” Michel said. “They’re playing the men and the women. It’s really incredible and epic. It has 32 scenes and they’re all very intense. There are several musical numbers which is very new for me. It’s a fantastic tale.”

The play, Duncombe added, is filled with gender politics that allows women to portray their oppressors, revealing the violence and abuse of the men in their lives.

“But instead of being victims, they’re actually taking control of their own story,” Duncombe said.

The production, they warn, does have nudity, though it is done in a tasteful, classical Greek manner. 

“It’s done in a sense of the pagan culture out of which the mythology emerges,” Duncombe said. “There was a sense of the body in ancient Greece and in classical times. The way Frédérique is using it aligns with that cultural origin. It’s not in any sense exploitative or sexualized. It’s that pagan comfort with the natural world, the body and sexuality itself.”

Perhaps more disturbing is the play’s violence.

“They have a very violent scene where they are portraying men raping a woman,” Michel said. “It shows the reality of the brutality of men because that is what happened then. They are actually re-acting the scenes, re-acting battles when they were fighting with a horse. They are doing a lot of things on stage. Penelope is telling the story while the 12 maids are recreating the scenes.”

Duncombe said that because these spirits are trapped in Hades for all eternity, they are endlessly replaying the story as a way of exorcising their demons, but they remain trapped in their story.

“There’s a sense almost of little girls playing pretend, make-believe games where they play all the characters and do all the parts — but there’s this frightening edge to it,” Duncombe said.

The narrative relates how the maids were accidently sent to their death, executed at the command of Penelope’s wrathful husband who believed the maids were in cohorts with the suitors when actually they had been sent by his wife to seduce them and spy on them so that she could live in peace. The maids put their faith in Penelope, that she would tell her husband how they had served her, but she didn’t have time to do it and Telemachus, their son, acting out his father’s male rage, hung them all.

“In many ways, the play shows the fidelity and fraternity of women at the same time that it shows the egoism and violence of men,” Duncombe said.

While the maids are faithful to Penelope, not all women in this show are friends. Penelope expresses her disgust and frustration with Helen of Troy, the woman owning the face that launched a thousand ships to battle the Trojan War and set off tragedy after tragedy. Penelope relates how mean her cousin was to her in their youth.

City Garage is using an evocative and unrealistic set, one that makes careful use of platforms, elevations, lights and projections. As they often do, they’ll use cameras to project images of people on stage. For example, when Penelope is doing a monologue, they will project a huge close-up of her in the background.

They’ll also make use of costume bits to help the audiences understand when the maids become men and the various roles they take on as they tell their stories. Under Michel’s direction, the changes are designed to happen in a beautiful and fluid manner.

In addition to being attracted to the gender politics of Atwood’s play, Duncombe said “The Penelopiad” is a good fit for City Garage because their audiences crave variety and have responded positively to the past adaptations they’ve done through the years of Greek mythology, both tragedies and comedies. 

“We experience it in our contemporary voice in a way that makes it seem not like distant history but more immediate,” Duncombe said. 

“It relates to what people are examining and reflecting on today, whether it’s power or gender politics or any number of issues.”

This is the first time City Garage has produced work by Atwood. They’ve had the rights for some time as they were originally planning to open the show in April 2020, but COVID-19 shutdowns prevented that. While the world has changed in many ways over the past two years, the story still holds the same sway and power it did before. 

“The same issues still resonate, which is about the position of women in society, the need for equality and diversity,” Duncombe said. “All the issues are still as alive as they were.”

Michel has high praise for her actors. She acknowledges that it is sometimes difficult to work with certain women or groups of women on stage, but that she has had none of those issues with this group.

“It’s really a great group of actresses who want to do their best and are very excited,” Michel said.

 “I was a little worried before when I was thinking 13 women on stage was going to be a challenge, when in fact, it’s really great. It’s a really good feeling to have them on stage.” 

“The Penelopiad”

WHEN: Through Sunday, Dec. 18

WHERE: City Garage Theatre, 2525 Michigan Avenue, Building T1, Santa Monica

COST: $25 students and seniors, $30 general admission