The stage adaptation of Margaret Atwood's 2005 novella The Penelopiad calls for a large, all-female cast, and in Winnipeg that usually means you can expect to see Sharon Bajer onstage.
The popular actress/playwright has a way of finding herself in the lineup of women-only productions, from Michel Tremblay's The Good Sisters (Les Belles Soeurs), which featured a whopping 15 actresses in 1996, to the seven in Caryl Churchill's Top Girls and six in Steel Magnolias, both in 2010.
"I've been in a lot of them and when they announced The Penelopiad with an all-female cast, I thought, 'I have to get in that one, too,'" says Bajer, during a recent interview at the RMTC Warehouse, where The Penelopiad opens Thursday.
So what effect does all that estrogen in one place have in the rehearsal hall?
"I think we have a tendency to eat a lot more, talk about food a lot more," says Bajer. "We talk about treats and there is always chocolate. I don't think that's the case in casts of all guys."
Atwood rescues Penelope from obscurity in Homer's Odyssey, where she's the boringly faithful wife of the godlike warrior-king Odysseus, and makes her a star in The Penelopiad. The celebrated Canadian novelist tells a different side of an old story from a female perspective and reveals her heroine to be a wily, pragmatic survivor with a caustic wit. While her husband is away for 20 years fighting the Trojan War, after which it takes him a decade to get home, Penelope fends off gluttonous suitors' advances with the help of her 10 maids.
Jennifer Lyon plays the long-suffering Penelope while 10 other Winnipeg women portray her maids, her suitors and all the other men and women in the nearly two-hour drama.
Bajer has multiple roles, the most prominent being the nurse, Eurykleia, but also many male roles, including a rapist.
Bajer, whose best-known play is Molly's Veil, says she has noticed that on days when they rehearse the male roles the cast gets more aggressive, especially when they are working on their characterization of the lecherous suitors, for which they eliminate the swivel in their hips and replace it with a swagger in their steps. In putting together her portrayal, she thought of those European macho men who whistle and hoot at any passing woman, whether or not she is accompanied by husband or boyfriend.
The actresses, not surprisingly, did compare notes, sharing stories about encounters with men.
"The play goes to some pretty dark places, too," says the mother of three. "There is a rape scene. Not that we talked about that, but in a cast of 11 women, statistically at least, some of us have had close calls or know someone who has been raped. It's something we're all kind of aware of but don't talk about. I can feel it when we do the scene."
Director Tracey Flye, who grew up in East Kildonan but has lived in Toronto since 1993, came to town and put together the acting ensemble without much trouble.
"I said on the first day of rehearsal, 'I'm crazy to have 11 women in the room,'" says Flye, whose great-grandfather, Thomas, was a Winnipeg city councillor from 1922 to 1943 and known as the unofficial mayor of Weston. "It's quite wonderful. There's a real openness because we all speak the same language."
The Penelopiad has been called a feminist retelling because Atwood challenges the patriarchal nature of Greek mythology. Little is known of the women who appear in the classic poem, and Atwood aims to set the record straight and give these women, who were considered possessions or chattel, their just due.
"It shows the struggle of women to have a voice and be recognized for what they do," says Flye, who directed Lyon in Rainbow Stage's 2011 production of Hairspray.
Flye recites the Greek saying that the man is the head but the woman is the neck -- the latter decides which direction to go. She says many of Odysseus' ideas were suggested by the women around him.
"These women were very strong, subversively, and able to manipulate and run things but never given credit for doing so," she says. "Atwood says these are not minor characters, they are major players."