‘The Handmaid’s Tale’ at Curio: Every moment matters

Isa St. Clair as Offred. Photo by Kyle Cassidy.

If you’re looking for a challenge, both emotionally and morally; if you’d like to question your assumptions about power; if you’d like to be inspired and called to action, then The Handmaid’s Tale is for you.

Curio Theatre Company is staging Joseph Stollenwerk’s one-woman adaptation of the 1985 speculative fiction novel by Margaret Atwood. In The Handmaid’s Tale, protagonist Offred relates her experiences as a subjugated woman in Gilead, a dystopian, patriarchal society governed by a totalitarian Christian theocracy. The text of the play itself is pulled right from Atwood’s novel, creating a two-hour dramatic monologue — in this show, set upon a round, rotating stage lit with Curio’s new LED lighting system.

Intense but rewarding

As the sole performer, actress Isa St. Clair has felt exhausted and lonely at times as she dealt with the harrowing details of The Handmaid’s Tale. She said it’s been especially difficult to leave her work in the theater space after rehearsing scenes of rape. But the intense process has been rewarding, too.

“It’s interesting to be playing a character who observes more than she acts,” St. Clair said. Offred tells her story to survive, as well as to hold on to who and where she is as society attempts to strip her of her identity. She does not speak from anyone else’s perspective, but instead describes the present and what kinds of actions have led up to that.

St. Clair, director M. Craig Getting, and the crew focused on the physicality and emotionality of the text one moment at a time to bring the Handmaid’s story to life. While the play touches on events of unthinkable horror, there are also instances of joy and humor throughout.

Getting uncomfortable with the material

Getting’s aim has been to support the work of the women involved with the production, from St. Clair to Margaret Atwood and Offred, while engaging with the radical and potentially perspective-altering themes. “My goal in rehearsal is to make myself uncomfortable with the material, to confront my own ignorance about feminism and what women endure on a daily basis,” Getting said. “If I feel guilty for or repulsed by the Handmaid's situation, then I know we're on the right track.”

Although certainly extreme, The Handmaid’s Tale is unquestionably politically relevant and provides a critical lens through which to see our own society. St. Clair noticed the uncanny way Gilead mirrors the world we live in when she first read the book while volunteering at Planned Parenthood. She was struck by how the novel reflected current discussions, especially around reproductive rights and gender roles. Getting also observed the parallels between the present and the futurism of The Handmaid’s Tale — in the past year, “We've been bombarded with people trying to restrict women's rights, committing terrible acts of domestic terrorism, and following extremist ideologies to their logical (and terrifying) ends,” he said.

The Handmaid’s Tale is certainly a cautionary tale, but it’s also empowering: It encourages consciousness and action while discouraging apathy. “There’s a whole thread of the play that talks about how ordinary is what you’re used to,” said St. Clair. “Hearing that repeated over and over has made me aware of how nothing happens instantaneously, and we are always on a slope to somewhere. This moment does count. The ‘it’ll be fine’ mentality is dangerous.”

Curio Theatre Company presents the Philadelphia premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale ($15-$25) at the Cavalry Center for Culture and Community, 4740 Baltimore Avenue, Philadelphia. Previews run October 15-22 and the show opens October 23, running through November 14 on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 8pm. Click here for tickets. 

For Mark Cofta's review, click here.