Ancient mythology is dominated by tales of bold men battling monsters, conquering civilizations and defeating foes.
But what about the women and children left, defenseless, at home? What becomes of them?
“The Penelopiad,” now playing at PCPA-Pacific Conservatory Theatre in Santa Maria, offers a fresh, feminist retelling of Homer’s epic poem “The Odyssey,” examining heroism on a more human scale. Rather than showcase the adventures of the Greek hero Odysseus after the fall of Troy, “The Penelopiad” focuses his faithful wife, Penelope, as she waits for her husband to return home.
Directed by Artistic Director Mark Booher, the play was adapted for the stage by famed novelist and poet Margaret Atwood from her novella of the same name.
We first encounter Penelope (Elizabeth Stuart) in Hades, the ancient Greek underworld. In this dark and desolate place, haunted by the shades of everyone she’s wronged, she muses on her life and her place in the history books.
The daughter of a Spartan king and a naiad, young Penelope (Mandy Corbett) is taught by her mother (Claire Louise Harlan) to behave like water — fluid, yielding, enduring.
That philosophy serves Penelope well as the bride of Odysseus (Polly Firestone Walker), the charismatic king of Ithaca. A trickster, warrior and thief whose greatest asset is the gift of the gab, he wins her hand by cheating in a foot race and her heart with bedtime tales of derring-do.
But shortly after the birth of their son Telemachus (Charlette Rawls), Odysseus rushes off to help retrieve Penelope’s vain, beautiful cousin Helen (Karin Hendricks), who has run off with handsome Paris of Troy.
As the Trojan War rages for 10 years, Penelope is left with only Odysseus’s overbearing mother Anticleia (Ambre Shoneff) and doting nurse Eurycleia (Kitty Balay) for company.
When Troy falls, it looks like Penelope’s trials are finally over. But as Odysseus sails for home, he’s whisked off on a decade-long journey that includes encounters with a cyclops, sirens and the witch-goddess Circe.
Meanwhile, more than 100 arrogant young aristocrats arrive in Ithaca in hopes of claiming Penelope’s hand and becoming the new king. She devises a clever plan to keep her suitors at bay — insisting that she can’t wed until she finishes a burial shroud for her late father-in-law, Laertes (Katie Wackowski).
With the help of 12 handmaidens led by Melantho (Holly Halay), Penelope spends her days weaving the shroud and her nights plucking out the threads. She comes to view her co-conspirators as friends, even sisters.
In Odysseus’s absence, Penelope must use every ounce of cunning and courage to protect herself, her son and her kingdom — even if her actions unwittingly lead to the deaths of the women she loves.
As ever-patient Penelope, Stuart serves as both narrator and tragic heroine of “The Penelopiad,” leading a fine all-female cast that handles male and female roles with equal aplomb. (Stuart doubles as the production’s choreographer, aided by Hendricks as movement director.)
Firestone Walker ably captures the easy confidence and charm of silver-tongued Odysseus, while Rawls channels the youthful bravado of his angry, spoiled son. Balay provides a welcome note of tart humor as the nurse who coddles them both.
The 12 doomed maids, meanwhile, serve as a musical Greek chorus.
Working with lightning designer Michael P. Frohling and sound designer/composer Elisabeth Rebel, scenic designer Abby Hogan creates an atmosphere well-suited to “The Penelopiad’s” modern sensibilities — using hanging ropes to allude to the maids’ tragic fate and simple columns to recall the story’s classical setting.
Alycia Matz’s simple costumes — mostly earth-toned tunics and shawls draped over tank tops and leggings — don’t distract from the effect.
“The Penelopiad” might take place in ancient times, but its attitudes toward gender and class will resonate deeply with contemporary audiences. Here, the characters seem to be saying, is a myth for a modern world.
7:30 p.m. Friday and Saturday, 1:30 p.m. Saturday, Sunday and Wednesday; through March 22
Severson Theatre, 800 S. College Drive, Santa Maria
$29.50 to $39.50, discounts for seniors, students and children
922-8313 or www.pcpa.org