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Review: ‘The Penelopiad’ at Goodman Theatre looks at ‘Odyssey’ through new eyes

In stark contrast with Helen, whose mere visage sent people bananas, the Homeric character known as Penelope was a paragon of spousal virtue and patience. But, as Book 22 of “The Odyssey” recounts, when Penelope’s Odysseus returns home to Ithaca and his faithful wife, he proceeds to murder the slovenly suitors who had courted her while he was overseas. He mutters something about the need for purity and he’s hardly done. He then commands his obedient son, who has been missing his dad, to kill all the palace handmaids who had slept with said suitors, even though they’d had no choice. The kid decides to hang them all.

And, at the Goodman Theatre Monday night, a dozen nooses dropped from the flies to dramatize the brutality.

The Goodman’s new artistic director, Susan Booth, has chosen to make her debut with “The Penelopiad,” a response to “The Odyssey” penned by Margaret Atwood in 2005 as part of a Scottish publisher’s project to commission writers to retell classic myths, changing the perspective of their narrative. Atwood’s novella, which mimicked Greek drama to some degree, soon was produced in dramatic form by the Canadian National Arts Centre and Britain’s Royal Shakespeare Company. “The Penelopiad” looks at Odysseus’ actions through the eyes of Penelope (played at the Goodman by Jennifer Morrison) and her 12 maids (Aja Alcazar, Demetra Dee, Maya Lou Hlava, Noelle Kayser, Elizabeth Laidlaw, Helen Joo Lee, Tyler Meredith, Ericka Ratcliff, Andrea San Miguel, Laura Savage, Allison Sill and Hannah Whitley), an effective Greek chorus who also play the suitors, as well as Odysseus and his son.

The piece is not, of course, the only work to look at the mostly triumphalist, patriarchal myths of the classical era from modern perspectives. “Hadestown,” a hit Broadway musical, is another example, as is “An Iliad,” the magnificent solo piece from Lisa Peterson and Denis O’Hare that looked at Homer through an anti-war lens. And, of course, Mary Zimmerman also has spend years in this arena. “The Penelopiad” is something of a strange piece; I remember reading the novella back in the day and its dramatization changes the experience, as such endeavors often do. It certainly reflects Atwood’s core themes, as fans of “The Handmaid’s Tale” will appreciate, but, of course, a lot of young feminists now will surely note that this is still a story wherein 13 women spend almost all of their time talking about a violent man and his son. The emphasis, thematically, is on solidarity and collective feminist voice. But the overarching structure of the original myth remains.

Booth certainly has pulled out all the epic stops with this show. Even though the stage appears sparse (steps and fabric), the designer Neil Patel has created a design that soars vertically, even as new horrors and revelations emerge from above. The costume design by Kara Harmon, beautiful and often quixotic, is a sight to see, too. There is strong singing and impassioned acting and Booth also has cast several accomplished dancers as she explores the life of the maids. JoAnn M. Hunter choreographs.

Booth has figured out a striking idea for every moment of the two-hour piece. And, I am guessing, she wanted to send a message in her first show as artistic director that she would focus on issues of importance to women, as well as demonstrate a commitment to Chicago actors, who fill the stage here. At times, I wondered if the show was a kind of subconscious response to her predecessor, also known for epic productions and his famous staging of “The Iceman Cometh,” which filled the Goodman stage with male Chicago actors.

Understandable, if so, not to mention interesting and provocative. I have no worries that Booth will struggle when it comes to maximalist productions or the offering of clear points of view. She has a similar ambition to Falls. Always did.

That said, and notwithstanding the humor in the piece, there is a certain chilliness to “The Penelopiad,” for reasons that are not easy to discern or describe, beyond saying that the world has greatly changed since 2005 in the arena of gender politics. I suspect some will find the depictions of violence jarring (although they are very stylized) and maybe even unearned, given the traumas they depict. Certainly, there is a strange splice with the ironic voice elsewhere in the piece, which is very 2005.

I attribute that to the history of the piece, penned more to read, and, of course, the simple reality of male narrative dominance, whatever the shift in point of view. Morrison is very solid in the leading role and, for sure, relatable. But the piece has a wry tone that you don’t see so much any more in the theater (when applied to this kind of subject matter), and it’s not so easy for this fine actress to become fully rooted. She still does very strong work.

When she wrote about “The Penelopiad” in 2005, the book critic Caroline Alexander described it as reflecting “the voice of the embarrassed modern in the presence of something acknowledged as profound.” That’s still a fair reading, I think and indicative of the systemic problems in the revisionist, change-the-POV genre. Maybe new stories with different protagonists are more helpful now.

Chris Jones is a Tribune critic.

cjones5@chicagotribune.com

Review: “The Penelopiad” (3 stars)

When: Through March 31

Where: Goodman Theatre, 170 N. Dearborn St.

Running time: 2 hours

Tickets: $25-$90 at 312-443-3800 and goodmantheatre.org