‘Handmaid’s Tale’ Adaptation Warns Against Complacency

Joe Stollenwerk lives in Bloomington, Ind., where he’s pursuing a doctorate in theater at Indiana University.

Jan 21, 2015 at 2:05 pm
Corinne Mohlenhoff as Offred in The Handmaid's Tale
Corinne Mohlenhoff as Offred in The Handmaid's Tale

Joe Stollenwerk lives in Bloomington, Ind., where he’s pursuing a doctorate in theater at Indiana University. He was part of the Cincinnati theater scene for more than a decade as a performer and the original artistic director of the Ovation Theatre Company, which shut down in 2008. He worked with lots of performers, including Cincinnati Shakespeare Company veteran Corinne Mohlenhoff. They clicked on many levels.

“I couldn’t name too many others I have worked with in any capacity who are more intelligent, more talented and who work as well with other people,” he says. “Corinne is a great collaborator.”

They worked together closely on a script he wrote for a one-woman show, conceived with her in mind: an adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s 1985 dystopian novel, The Handmaid’s Tale. It has been presented briefly to Cincinnati audiences in the past, but Know Theatre will give it a full production for a month-long run opening on Jan. 23. Mohlenhoff will perform, and her husband, Cincy Shakes Artistic Director Brian Isaac Phillips, is directing.

Here’s the story: In the near future, what’s left of the United States has become the Republic of Gilead, a nation oppressively governed by strictly religious principles. Like many women in Gilead, Offred (Mohlenhoff’s role) has had her name and family taken from her and been forced to become a handmaid, a vessel for population growth, valued only for her viable ovaries. Controlled by the strict regime, she has memories of life before the revolution and struggles to maintain her individuality and personhood.

“I first read The Handmaid’s Tale in a course on feminism and utopia/dystopia in literature in 2002,” Stollenwerk says. “This was in the wake of 9/11, and it seemed that our country might all too easily be teetering on the brink of something reminiscent of Gilead.”

Things haven’t changed all that much since 1985 or 2001, he says.

“What strikes me most is how people can become complicit in their own disempowerment and disenfranchisement. There’s a great line in the book: ‘Nothing changes instantaneously: in a gradually heating bathtub you’d be boiled to death before you knew it.’ That is emblematic in how the story relates to 21st-century American culture. Too often people are willing to comply bit by bit with things. Before you know it, things change. If that happened immediately, it might prompt a revolt. But when it’s done gradually, it’s easy to give up your freedom.”

Stollenwerk saw Mohlenhoff as the perfect choice to bring Offred’s story to life.

“I’ve always been a great advocate of great roles for women in the theater,” he says.

He began his adaptation about five years after reading Atwood’s novel, the story of which stayed with him. In 2009, just before he left Cincinnati for his academic pursuits in Bloomington, he and Mohlenhoff presented a reading of the work. He returned in April 2011 when Cincy Shakes staged a quick nine-performance run that was well received.

Andrew Hungerford, Know’s artistic director, designed the lighting for that 2011 production.

“I was incredibly moved by what we were able to create using limited equipment and the set from another show,” he says. “I’m thrilled to have the opportunity to have Brian and Corinne join our team at Know to bring this story to a wider audience in a fully realized, dedicated production. It’s a great fit for Know’s commitment to second productions of plays and our development of local works.”

A 1990 film of The Handmaid’s Tale (adapted by renowned British playwright Harold Pinter) — Natasha Richardson was Offred, and the cast included Faye Dunaway, Robert Duvall and Elizabeth McGovern — has made it harder to obtain permission to produce Stollenwerk’s version. He’s had at least 10 theaters inquire about staging it, but requests have been denied, perhaps also because a TV adaptation is rumored to be in the works. Nevertheless, Know Theatre has a green light for its upcoming production.

Stollenwerk will come to Cincinnati as an audience member, but he’s not directly involved. Before he moves on to other creative work, he needs to finish his doctoral dissertation and find a position at a college or university where he can blend the worlds of scholarship and practice.

“I like to think about theater as something we do,” he says emphatically, “and convey that in the classroom as well as onstage.”

Stollenwerk is clearly a doer, as will be demonstrated at Know Theatre later this month.

CONTACT RICK PENDER: [email protected]