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Margaret Atwood's prescient 1985 novel The Handmaid's Tale was her first foray into science fiction, though she's too "literary" to be ghettoized by that label. Her absorbing trilogy Oryx and Crake (2003), The Year of the Flood (2009), and MaddAddam (2013), as well as her new novel The Heart Goes Last, all portray mostly grim futures.
The Handmaid's Tale is the most frightening, though, because it's the most plausible, showing the immediate aftermath of society's hijacking by radical evangelical conservatives rather than a more distant post-apocalyptic future. It's also the novel — and now play, adapted by Joseph Stollenwerk as a one-woman show, receiving a profound local premiere by Curio Theatre Company — that most directly grows from contemporary reality.
It should scare the shit out of anyone who cares about how women are treated in America and the world today.
Atwood saw the signs
Though written 30 years ago, The Handmaid’s Tale shows how a reactionary movement could seize control of our country, using a trumped-up terrorist attack to suspend the Constitution and give women "freedom from" instead of "freedom to" by rescinding all their rights — to property, money, independence, self-expression, relationships, mobility, even reading and writing — with the promise of protecting them and restoring godly morality. It's the dream behind Republican efforts to defund Planned Parenthood and the evangelical movement's attempts to ban sex education and criminalize birth control. It's the secret goal of men who blame women for rape and people like Republican presidential candidate Ben Carson, who said just last week that abortion should be illegal even in cases of rape and incest. It's tradition in countries like Saudi Arabia that don't allow women to drive or even leave the house alone. It's the stated aim of the Taliban, who shoot girls for going to school and condone "honor killings."
In short, The Handmaid's Tale's Republic of Gilead is a Pat Robertson wet dream.
A production beyond the call of duty
Isa St. Clair is simply brilliant as Offred (break down that name!). She wears the red dress of a "handmaid" (terrific costume by Aetna Gallagher), code for the "national resource" of a fertile woman. It's her choice, she explains, though the alternative was "the Colonies," where women deemed useless are worked to death cleaning up nuclear waste. She lives within the Commander's home, forced into creepy ritual sex and living in a cell-like room where "they removed anything you could tie a rope to." This is "as usual" now, she explains.
Those who disagree are executed, their bodies hung in public as a warning.
St. Clair narrates the action, often slipping into other roles: the Commander, who gives Offred a taste of old freedoms; his jealous wife, a televangelist who didn't bargain for losing all her power when she preached Biblical severity; old friend Moira, who dares to rebel; and fellow handmaid Ofglen, who offers some hope. Carrying a play alone like this is a huge challenge that St. Clair ably meets. She not only makes the story clear, but she also lives it with all the shock, fear, and dismay that make it utterly, disturbingly real.
An eerie growl
Director M. Craig Getting and set designer Paul Kuhn could set The Handmaid's Tale on a bare stage, but instead go all-out with a turntable set — a rotating circular platform, its electric motor providing an eerie growl that underscores Offred's plight — with a two-story wall and staircase that give St. Clair room to roam while still keeping the play intimate. The dynamic staging isn't just busy movement, but a powerful storytelling element. Tim Martin's lighting creates moments of stark beauty, though using red light is not only over-obvious, but also clashes with Offred's red dress.
Though hardly a Halloween play, The Handmaid's Tale might be the scariest show this season. Unlike the ghosts, vampires, and zombies of other seasonal entertainment, this could easily be our future, and elements of it are all too real for many women around the world in this supposedly enlightened, advanced century.
Samantha Maldonado talked to performer St. Clair and director Getting for her WNWN preview of The Handmaid’s Tale.
For Alaina Mabaso's thoughts about contemporary America after seeing this production of The Handmaid's Tale, click here.
What, When, Where
The Handmaid's Tale by Margaret Atwood, adapted by Joseph Stollenwerk. M. Craig Getting directed. Through November 14 at Curio Theatre Company, 4740 Baltimore Avenue, Philadelphia. 215-525-1350 or curiotheatre.org.
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