‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ delivers an emotional wallop

By: Griff Bludworth ~Staff Colomnist~

The best plays are the ones in which the stakes are always high, the circumstances always immediate and the audience always tense. Plays like these make people feel a lot while watching and think after leaving.

This ideology pervades the Know Theatre’s production of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” an adaptation of 1985 dystopian novel by Margaret Atwood, which hits the audience with an emotional and intellectual one-two punch in the best way.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” tells the story of Offred, a handmaid in the Republic of Gilead. Military insurgents have overthrown the U.S. government and instituted a Christian theocracy in which women are valued only for their child-bearing capabilities. Offred has been separated from her family and forced into reproductive servitude. The play tells of her struggles to survive, stay true to the family she will likely never see again and, just maybe, escape.

Joe Stollenwerk has adapted Offred’s story for the stage as a one-woman show.

The show runs two and a half hours, and Corinne Mohlenhoff, who plays Offred, does not leave the stage except for intermission. Mohlenhoff ’s stamina and energy are incredible, even when the script is not.

Mohlenhoff’s multi-faceted portrayal of Offred both intrigues and entertains.
Mohlenhoff’s multi-faceted portrayal of Offred both intrigues and entertains.

Stollenwerk’s adaptation is, at times, a compelling character piece, but at others too narrative, leaving the audience to feel as if it has been told something it ought to have been shown. Mohlenhoff does not allow this to get in the way of Offred’s burning need to tell her story.

Mohlenoff ’s Offred feels tense, despondent, hopeful and conflicted at all times, never losing a sense of what was at stake. In addition, the voices she uses to distinguish the cast of characters in her tale are not only consistent and distinct, but reflect as much about the narrator as they do the characters she is imitating. The set and lights, both designed by Andrew J. Hungerford, work in tandem to create a pervasive atmosphere and illustrate scenic diversity.

The set is simple: a single, gray cell with a bed, a fractured floor and windows at the top of the wall. Hungerford designed his light to complement this deliberate monotony, shining in perfect approximations of sunlight through the high windows, distinguishing times of day and adding to the feeling that freedom was just out of reach. Additional area lighting switches frequently to distinguish between locales without a change of set, and harsh fluorescents underscore some of the starker settings, such as a doctor’s office.

Sound cues, designed by Doug Borntrager, serve to punctuate specific moment’s in Offred’s tale and add a sense of immediacy to her narrative.

The lone costume, too, designed by Noelle Wedig, served to immerse the audience in the repressive culture of the Republic of Gilead.

All the elements of “The Handmaid’s Tale,” from acting to direction to set, weave together to create a sense of immediacy which, despite an inconsistent script, captures the audience and makes real the disturbing implications of Atwood’s dystopian story.

“The Handmaid’s Tale” runs through Feb. 20 and has free shows every Wednesday.

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