Margaret Atwood’s dystopian novel from 1985, The Handmaid’s Tale, tells a frightening story about a woman trapped in a not-too-distant future that seems even more real today than it did when the book was first published a quarter-century ago. A conservative overthrow of the U.S. government has created the Republic of Gilead, a theocracy in which women are subjugated to stereotypical roles. Most particularly, the tale’s narrator is a “handmaid,” a woman whose sole task is to bear children.
Joe Stollenwerk, a Cincinnati actor and director, has adapted the novel into a one-woman stage work, and it’s getting its world premiere in a brief run at Cincinnati Shakespeare this month on the off-nights during the run of Julius Caesar (in a production in which the women are in charge).
The novel is a first-person narrative, so the adaptation flows naturally into a two-hour piece that veteran actress Corinne Mohlenhoff could bring to life. As she narrates the story, several key characters are portrayed and given dimension with vocal textures and physical attitudes. Mohlenhoff handles this challenging performance with invention, clarity and strength.
Stollenwerk’s adaptation feels a tad choppy, especially as Mohlenhoff moves quickly from episode to episode. Director Brian Isaac Phillips has her turn a full circle as a signal when she moves to a new section; transitions are further delineated by sometimes abrupt lighting changes, largely limited to lighting designed effects for the current production of Julius Caesar.
The condensation of the story means that The Handmaid’s Tale progresses with a pace that can be tough to follow, with finer details and motivations not always easy to discern. Nevertheless, this vision of a possible and frightening future — despite a very open-ended conclusion as to the handmaid’s fate — is a vivid one that makes for an evening of engaging theater.
THE HANDMAID’S TALE, presented by Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, continues through April 20. Buy tickets, check out performance times and get venue details here.