Margaret Atwood’s novel, The Handmaid’s Tale, was published 30 years ago, but when you see its theatrical adaptation by Joe Stollenwerk at Know Theatre, you might imagine that it’s even more possible today. It’s a powerful personal story of a woman held hostage in the Republic of Gilead, a dystopian future America harshly governed by repressive conservative religious leaders.
Alone onstage for 150 minutes, Corinne Mohlenhoff portrays Offred, a “handmaid” who is essentially imprisoned because her ovaries still function. (She does have a 15-minute intermission.) A veteran actor with Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, Mohlenhoff makes a dazzling debut at Know, bringing her versatile acting skills to play the anxious, sensitive young woman, as well as the people, male and female, who control and affect her life.
Her performance is not merely a tour-de-force of memorization but also of making the show constantly engaging. (She has been helped, in no small measure, by her director — and husband — Brian Isaac Phillips, who happens to be Cincy Shakes' artistic director.) Mohlenhoff uses numerous voices, postures, facial expressions and especially her wonderfully expressive hands as she shifts between an “Aunt” (a trainer), a “Martha” (infertile women servants), her brassy friend Moira, a guard, her patronizing master, the “Commander” and his jealous wife.
The show was presented briefly at Cincy Shakes in 2011, but that production borrowed its set and dark nights from a staging of Julius Caesar. At Know it’s fully staged on a set resembling an eerily lit, bombed-out bunker with barred windows; Andrew Hungerford’s design and lighting enables Mohlenhoff to move fluidly from scene to scene, and Doug Borntrager’s subtle sound design keeps the tone vaguely menacing.
Offred makes it clear this is a “tale” of modest rebellion that she is telling, and she occasionally corrects herself when her imagination gets ahead of her. The story has an ambiguous ending (or is it a beginning?), but we can surmise — since we learn her story after the fact — that she has escaped and moved on to a new stage of life. We are left to guess what that might be. But we can be certain that strong-minded, thoughtful and sensual Offred, brought to life so vividly by Mohlenhoff, is likely to be a survivor.
THE HANDMAID’S TALE, presented by Know Theatre, continues through Feb. 21.