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Ensemble Theatre’s ‘The Penelopiad’ is Greek tragedy at its best

Once the mortal queen of Ithaca, Greece, Penelope (Amy Fritsche*) is not a happy spirit. Spending thousands of years in Hades has a tendency to do that to people. Thus begins Margaret Atwood’s The Penelopiad, the contemporary retelling of the ancient Greek classic The Odyssey now on stage at Ensemble Theatre.

Penelope’s tale is portrayed as an epic Greek tragedy through the liberal use of several types of songs, poetry, dance, laments, a lecture, a trial and even a jump rope rhyme. It has all the elements of great theater including drama, tragedy, pathos, romance, conflict, heroic deeds and yes...even great humor. Over the course of the show, Penelope and her twelve maids attempt to portray the lack of equity between the sexes during ancient times.

Margaret Atwood is best known as the author of The Handmaid’s Tale which has been turned into a wildly popular television series. With this play she attempts to tell the story of a strong woman living in a powerfully patriarchal society who has to fight, and fight hard, for any vestige of personal freedom.

Penelope begins by relating how her own father, Icarius (Hannah Storch) tried to kill her off as an infant because of his wish for a son. When a flock of ducks crowd around the sinking child bringing her back to shore the king realizes his error and the fact that his daughter is blessed by the gods and raises Penelope with overly affection. Combined with a vain, distant and neglectful mother, Penelope develops a strong personality of her own.

At age fifteen a contest in the form of a running race is held to find a suitable husband for this sacred and noble born child. One of the entrants is Odysseus who is considered of lower class breeding even though he is the prince of Ithaca. His island home is considered by the people of Sparta to be a low class rock outcropping. With his short legs and barrel chest, Odysseus is considered the dark horse in a field of far more suitable suitors.

Nevertheless by a series of cheats he wins. On their wedding night he convinces Penelope to fake scream her anguish of being taken in order to satisfy the lust of the eavesdroppers who are assembled outside their wedding chamber. He then promises his undying love and gentleness to his new bride. They spend the night with Odysseus regaling her with his tales of daring as Penelope falls in love with her husband.

Soon, Penelope gives Odysseus a son, Telemachus (Shley Snider) but her husband has other ideas on how to spend his quality time and embarks to fight in the Trojan War in order to defend Helen (Diane Frankhauser) who has been Penelope’s rival in beauty and wisdom.

Over the next twenty years news trickles back to Ithaca of Odysseus’ exploits as Penelope has her hands full running the kingdom, raising her son, in spite of the competition from his assigned nanny Eurycleia (Julia Fisher) and the fighting off of numerous suitors bent on replacing Odysseus who is presumed dead.

To this end she devises a deceit telling the suitors that she must weave a death shroud for her very ill father-in-law. During the day she weaves but at night with the help of her twelve maids they secretly unravel what work had been done. The maids also band together to run interference between their queen and her overly enthusiastic wooers.

The stage is a bare set composed of twelve wooden black boxes. The only props are the actors’ garments with additional accouterments added from baskets on the side to denote certain characters. Your attention is devoted solely to the extremely fine acting by this company of thirteen exceptional local actors that include: Amy Fritsche as Penelope, Sarah Frankhauser as Helen/Maid, Marina Gordon as Naiad Mother/ Maid, Maya Jones as Anticlea/Maid, Inés Joris as Maid, Grace Mitri as Laertes/Maid, Zyrece Montgomery as oracle/Maid, Shley Snider as Teleachus/Maid, Hannah Storch as Icarius/Maid, Jaytionna Wells as Antinous/Maid and Stephanie Wilber as Odysseus/Maid.

Notables among the cast include Amy Fritsche who is truly remarkable as Penelope. You feel her anguish and world weariness as she tries to serve while not surrendering her essence. Julia Fisher as Eurycleia who is laser guided to raise Telemachus as her own. Shley Snider as the spoiled brat Telemachus who shows the correct degree of impetuousness. Stephanie Wilbert as Odysseus who brings a high degree of male bravado to the role. Diane Frankhauser as Helen who floats her beauty and feminine guile through the air not caring who they affect. The ensemble of thirteen actors achieve a special fluidity that helps the complex work flow along.

Special mention must also be made of Kelsey Tomlinson’s costuming, Kelly Elliot’s fight choreography and the superb direction by Celeste Cosentino.

Without a doubt, this is one of the finest productions to hit Cleveland in quite some time. Although the Greek names remain intact, the contemporary writing style makes this epic work easy to follow. You will find yourself swept along for a wild ride. If you are serious about theater you should seriously consider seeing this wonderful show.

The Penelopiad runs through November 10, 2019 at Ensemble Theatre, 2843 Washington Blvd., Cleveland, Ohio. For tickets and information visit or call (216) 321-2930.

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Who is Mark Horning?

Over the course of my life I have worked a variety of jobs including newspapers, retail camera sales and photography. Eight years ago I embarked on yet another career as writer. This included articles concerning sports and cultural events in Cleveland, Ohio as well reviews of the many theatrical productions around town. These days are spent photographing professional dance groups, theater companies and various galas and festivals as well as attending various stage performances and posting reviews about them.  

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