stanley theatre

Review: The Penelopiad

During my early years at UBC, I fought with a lot of pressure coming from different places on the merits of an arts degree in the real world. It speaks to the larger issue of how art, literature, creative writing, theatre, music and so on can contribute to society. While some folks are more inclined to write these off as ‘hobbies,’ I think it’s pretty obvious by now that these areas help us to communicate the human experience beyond numbers, reports and dry facts.

THE PENELOPIAD plays at the Stanley Theatre until Nov. 20, 2011. (ARTS CLUB PHOTO)

The Original Desperate Housewife

The Arts Club’s current production of The Penelopiad is the perfect example of how the arts and modern-day life can intersect, helping us to further understand our world.

The Penelopiad is Canadian writer Margaret Atwood‘s take on the famous tale The Odyssey. In Homer’s original story, Odysseus, the Greek king of Ithaca, spends a decade fighting the Trojan War and spends another decade finding his way home. Atwood’s version, however, explores that same 20-year time period but from the perspective of Odysseus’ wife, Penelope, who waits at home in Ithaca. While Odysseus is known for his resourcefulness, Penelope must also channel that same quality to fight a very different war on home turf.

After Odysseus’ departure, the young girl is quickly thrust into control of the household. Following the death of her in-laws, she must also learn to cope with the aggressive affections of suitors and the difficulties of raising a son. Luckily, she has in her company 12 young and loyal maids who help her to weave a tricky lie to fend off the suitors. The disastrous result, however, is heartbreaking and wreaks guilt even on the hearts of audience members who watch helplessly as the tragedy unfolds on the lives of the maids.

Modern Day

Unbeknownst to me, my season tickets happen to land on Talkback Tuesdays of each month. It’s always an interesting experience to hear from the actors themselves.

One of the questions posed was about the modern-day relevancy of The Penelopiad, a play of war, abandonment and traditional cultures. Meg Roe, who plays Penelope in an achingly beautiful and hauntingly graceful manner, responded with the suggestion that Atwood’s play gives a voice to the unheard. (NOTE: I’ve since been corrected that it was actually Dawn Petten who brought up the connection with the Missing Women Inquiry.) She believes that the play is highly topical today and specifically noted its connection with the Missing Women Comission of Inquiry currently taking place in Vancouver.

Missing Women Inquiry

The inquiry, which explores why so many missing DTES women were left uninvestigated during the Pickton era, has drawn national attention, both positive and negative. If you’ve driven through downtown Vancouver recently, it’s possible you’ve encountered protesters who are unhappy with the way those cases have played out, demanding justice for their fallen sisters.

While The Penelopiad certainly doesn’t address those issues directly or in detail, I believe it helps by voicing concerns about those who deserve and seek justice. The play itself is about giving a voice to the voiceless, telling the other side of the story; it brings light to those who can’t plead their own stories. Just as the Missing Women Inquiry hopes to hear the families of victims who have long been left in the dark, The Penelopiad shares the other side of the story and explores how a different kind of battle occurred while Odysseus was away. The play is really about finding justice for those who’ve been wronged.

In retrospect, many aspects of the play may have struck me differently if I’d approached The Penelopiad with the Missing Women Inquiry in mind. A week later, I find myself still turning over and over the different conflicts and issues the play brought to light, examining them through the filter of its modern-day connection.

The Arts Club's THE PENELOPIAD features (clockwise from top) Meg Roe, Laara Sadiq, Rachel Aberle, Ming Hudson, Sarah Donald and others. (DAVID COOPER PHOTO)

In Performance

Despite the morbid nature of the play’s outcome, the cast does a stellar job of playing out the seductively eerie storyline. The choreography and movement add another layer to the story and stretches the audience’s imagination into the wildest, most terrifying places. That credit goes to Denise Clarke, the play’s movement designer.

While Atwood does not state a preference on the makeup of actors, The Penelopiad is commonly played with by an all-female cast, with many doubling up on various roles. Roe addresses the audience as her story’s narrator, candid at times and often casual and relatable. So realistic is her retelling of the story, however, that when she fears for her life, we also feel the same grip on our throats. Colleen Wheeler also deserves mention, doubling as a maid and as Odysseus, realistically commanding and assertive as the king of Ithaca.

There’s much to be said about good chemistry within a cast but The Penelopiad is one example where there’s an obviously high level of trust between the actors. Some of the play’s key moments are difficult to watch and likely heartwrenching for the actors to perform but it’s clear the cast wholeheartedly believes in the words they speak, in their armstrokes and in every step.

The Penelopiad plays until Nov. 20, 2011 at the Arts Club’s Stanley Theatre. Tickets are still available and can be purchased at an Arts Club Theatre box office, by phone at 604-687-1644 or online at

Featured Photo: Meg Roe as Penelope in the Arts Club’s production of THE PENELOPIAD. (DAVID COOPER PHOTO)

Review: Next to Normal

There’s a stigma around mental health that’s been poked and prodded in recent weeks here in Vancouver.

Former Canucks player Rick Rypien was one of three NHL players to die this off-season in the midst of mental health struggles. The VPD recently released its second report detailing how police officers become defacto health workers when dealing with the DTES’s mentally ill. It’s a huge deal and it receives media attention but for some reason, we still don’t really know how to approach mental health issues in our every day lives.

Performed On Stage

The set for the Arts Club's production of Next to Normal was designed by Ted Roberts. (GOOGLE PHOTO)

I saw the Arts Club Theatre’s production of Next to Normal earlier tonight at Vancouver’s Stanley Theatre. The musical, fresh off a hit Broadway run, three Tony Awards and a Pulitzer Prize, details how mental health issues have gripped a seemingly “normal” suburban family and how they choose to deal with it.

Diana (played by the wonderfully talented Caitriona Murphy) is a mother of two whose fractures are slowly starting to creep up into her marriage. Dan (Warren Kimmel) is her devoted husband who lovingly learns to work with her sporadic and wild swings of emotion. Gabe and Natalie (Eric Morin and Jennie Neumann) are their two children, emotionally distanced from each other as if they’d never met. The rock musical is composed by Tom Kitt and the book is by Brian Yorkey.

Illustrated Through Music

Though its format is a musical and mental health is a serious issue, the two concepts meld seamlessly, thanks to Kitt and Yorkey’s careful interpolation of each character’s voice. The music is wildly enthusiastic, an illustration of the mental states of each character at various points of the story. Voices constantly drop in and out of the main theme of each song, often with overlapping and competing lines.

Although there are points where the stress of the demanding vocals begins to peek through, it bears repeating that these actors perform the show eight times a week and have no understudies to rely on. All things considered, I’d still argue that the music is probably one of the more catching qualities of the production, subtly driving home points about how mental health affects us without us realizing, how it drives us in different directions.

 Private Struggle

Each character fights their own private struggle that runs parallel to the family’s main conflict — Diana is slowly becoming more and more unhinged as she bounces between treatment options. (It’s hilariously outlined in a sing-song grocery list of medication followed by, “These are a few of my favourite things.”) It’s not until part way through the first half of the play when we realize there’s something deeper and darker than just being chemically imbalanced.

Diana’s pain draws on emotional depths that are exposed in violent and frightening ways. The story does this by spending a fair amount of time examining how Diana’s actions have affected her 16-year-old daughter Natalie. As we watch Natalie meet a boy and develop a relationship, we begin to fear that history will repeat itself as we watch her spiral into a similar pattern as her mother — each of their flaws are reflected in the other.

Promotional poster for the Arts Club's production of Next to Normal. (ARTS CLUB PHOTO)

Feeling Everything

Without giving away too much of the plot or sharing my own personal history, the musical is rightly sold as “the feel-everything musical” — I felt it all. Thought its subject is dark, there are moments of hilarious clarity that give the audience hope throughout. Although my real-life situation is vastly differently from the story on stage, I could feel myself becoming attached to the struggles Natalie experienced when dealing with her mother.

While many films, plays, musicals, productions are predictable and follow format, Next to Normal presented so many different opportunities to its characters. I was never really sure whether Diana would survive the insanity presented at the beginning of the story but by the end, you become so attached to the characters that you can’t help but support their decisions and feel as though things will be okay. The story, characters and the issues discussed draw in the audience and force us to examine how a family falls apart and attempts to put itself back together again.

Next to Normal plays until Oct. 9, 2011. Tickets are still available and can be purchased at an Arts Club Theatre box office, by phone at 604-687-1644 or online at I highly, highly recommend you check it out if you’ve got the chance.

Featured Photo: Eric Morin, Jennie Neumann, Caitriona Murphy and Warren Kimmel star in the Arts Club’s Next to Normal. (DAVID COOPER PHOTO)