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UCI’s “The Penelopiad” Brings New Narrative to a Classic Greek Epic

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By Lauren Knight

UCI Drama Department’s cleverly-crafted production of “The Penelopiad” brought empowered female storytelling to the Claire Trevor Theater during its run from Feb. 5 to Feb. 9. 

Directed by Sara Rodriguez, “The Penelopiad” takes the audience through the life of Odysseus’ wife Penelope as she examines themes of injustice, female identity and responsibility with regards to her own life. Penelope looks back on her life from Hades in present day, weaving an analogy of “spinning her own thread” into the story as she confesses to her own faults and recounts her version of the Trojan War in “The Odyssey.” As her husband fights in a 10-year war and takes another 10 years to return home, Penelope deals with her own issues in Ithaca’s palace which lead to the inevitable death of 12 maids that remain her only friends while her husband is away. Through the storytelling of Penelope and her haunting Greek chorus of dead maids, UCI staged a production that included new music by Luke Shepherd, adding musicality to the chants for the Greek chorus. 

The set, designed by Brandon PT Davis, featured tree roots stretching down from the ceiling, creating a sense of being underground that fit perfectly with Penelope’s narrating from the underworld of Hades. With crumbling pillars staggering across the stage, this minimalist set created a versatile scenic design that allowed for an easy shift between the different locations within the play. However, The versatility of Sarah Monaghan’s costume designs proved to be one of the most inventive aspects of the production, as the Greek tunics worn by the actresses shifted into shorter, male tunics with a simple red drawstring at the hem. With actresses switching back and forth between male and female characters, these costumes led to quick, seamless transitions between characters that allowed for a continuity of scenes without tedious costume changes. The cherry red epaulettes were fastened and refastened to the harnesses worn by the maids and used in several key scenes as threads in shroud, symbolic transitions between male and female characters and even as nooses during the execution scene. These were the most used pieces that functioned as costumes and props, and the textiles used to create them also created the fringe-like flowiness of the turquoise dress worn by Penelope throughout the show. The use of the chainette fringe in both sets of costumes created a fluid look that brought an overall cohesion to visual aspects of the production as a whole. 

Odysseus (Sophia Metcalf) returns in Margaret Atwood’s “The Penelopiad,” featuring
an all-female cast, which plays at UC Irvine in the Claire Trevor Theatre through Feb. 9. Photo courtesy of Paul R. Kennedy.

Featuring a cast of non-binary and female-identifying individuals, the show’s themes of femininity and empowerment shone through in several portrayals of iconic Greek characters. Sophia Metcalf brought strength to the male character of Odysseus in a way that did not emphasize hypermasculinity, but instead, focused on emotional vulnerability that allowed them to connect with Hope Andrejack, who played Penelope. The two shared moments of immense emotional connection onstage, and through their individual character choices, conveyed a deep connection in husband and wife relationship that added to the overall complexity of their dynamic. 

Penelope (Hope Andrejack), sings a lullaby to comfort her son Telemachus (Justine
Rafael) and explain how Odysseus went to Troy. Photo courtesy of Paul R. Kennedy.

Captivating the attention of the audience from her first line, Andrejack’s performance created a compelling narrative that peered into the mind of Penelope through subtle mannerisms and acting choices that defined her take on the character. During the moments she portrayed Penelope in her younger years, Andrejack assumed a posture with hands folded politely and shoulders slightly raised, shifting weight between her feet; this physical stance conveyed the uneasy nature of the young princess who lacked confidence in her place within her new family, a key component of 15-year-old Penelope’s identity. As she transitions to her life as the queen of Ithaca, Andrejack stands tall and confident, presenting Penelope’s emotional strength outwardly through a presence that commands attention and respect for an empowering female role. Andrejack makes these transitions so seamlessly that it truly feels like one is watching Penelope grow up 20 years over the span of a couple of hours, giving this production a strong leading lady that brings a new light to a role barely noted in Homer’s original epic poem, “The Odyssey.” Andrejack’s performance was truly unparalleled, and her ability to craft such complexities into a character that is ever-changing highlights her range and strength as an actress. 

UCI’s production of “The Penelopiad” exceeded expectations for success, bringing life to a contemporary work that fits incredibly well with the department’s season, “Women & Company.” As the first mainstage production of the department’s  winter term, “The Penelopiad” sets a high bar for the rest of the productions in the quarter’s repertory.