‘The Penelopiad’ arrives straight from hell


Despite a conspicuous role in one of 2019’s bolder local productions, Abbie Cathcart isn’t a familiar face in local theater. That’s because she played the heavily made-up and unrecognizable “Creature” in Michigan State University Department of Theatre’s “Frankenstein.” 

Making her directorial debut with “The Penelopiad,” audiences once again won’t be able to see her striking face — and she is OK with that. “My acting training definitely has influenced my directing, but directing exercises different muscles than acting,” Cathcart said. “I’ve been focused on honing them more than anything else.”

The Margaret Atwood play is based on her book modeled on “The Odyssey.” Atwood wrote the novella in 2005 and it was first performed as a play in 2007. Using contemporary prose and verse, “The Penelopiad” is a feminist reimagining of Homer’s epic poem. In Atwood’s version, the story is told from the viewpoint of Penelope, Odysseus’ wife, from Hades. 

When Rob Roznowski, head of acting for MSU Department of Theatre, brought the play to Cathcart’s attention, she fell in love with it. 

“I immediately started hearing the soundscape of the show and just became so excited to get started,” she said. “It’s a fascinating, moving story and felt like a fun foundation upon which to experiment with some of my staging ideas.”

She relates to the impossible situation Penelope is in. “She represents all women who are forced to either tear down the world that exists and doesn’t serve them, or risk hurting other women to get ahead,” Cathcart said.

The production will be MSU Department of Theatre’s first live indoor play since the March 2020 shutdown. “It’s invigorating getting back to work with other artists after so long away from in-person theater making,” Cathcart said.

After working for three years at the Commonweal Theatre Co. in her home state of Minnesota, the 27-year-old graduated this year with her MFA from MSU. “I started in 2018 in a cohort of eight,” Cathcart said. “It feels great to revisit my very recent stomping grounds.”

“The Penelopiad” is the first offering as part of the new Storefront Theatre Initiative. The Storefront model dictated having an only-one-week run. It’s meant to bring new acting opportunities and a different approach to students. Creative teams are challenged to work with limited rehearsals and resources.  

“It’s characterized by sparse designs, experimental works and an approach that focuses on directing, acting and writing,” Cathcart said. “The set is extremely bare bones.”

Cathcart said that once all the elements come together, it doesn’t feel that way. “The actors’ creativity is the heartbeat of this production, and that’s very exciting,” she said.

She supplied props like flashlights and shawls and crafted the floral crowns and wreaths to add to the rehearsal blocks the department provided. “I’ve gotten all right with a can of spray paint, a hot glue gun and other craft supplies I had at home,” Cathcart said. “The more elaborate props have been pantomimed.”

She said she lucked out getting such a lovely cast of “super smart, interesting artists that have poured themselves into this show.”

Rehearsals with the 10 players have been masked and contact-tracing protocols have been followed. “We have masks that have little plastic windows so we can see their mouths when they speak,” she said. “I’m a person who always has closed-captioning on so this was a nice bonus.”

The hardest part of bringing “The Penelopiad” to the stage for Cathcart was establishing the balance between Penelope as victim and as perpetrator.  

She hopes her direction conveys the message that the status quo can always be questioned. “We’re stronger when all of us can be heard and seen,” she said. “A lack of personal empowerment for some is a poison for many. They’re ideas I want the students in my cast to chew on. Hopefully, they embolden their artistry later in their careers.”

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