The Curio Theatre Company’s production of THE HANDMAID’S TALE based on the classic novel by Margaret Atwood is a particularly timely work. During this unbalanced time in our culture, where gross misconducts and reactionary violence are as commonplace as the quiet acceptance of the freedoms we voluntarily give away, this production serves as a reminder of the potential result of such social carelessness. Set in a world years after the overtaking of the United States by a Christian theocracy, many of the images expressed in the telling of the story of this “handmaid”, Offred (Isa St. Clair), remind us of fundamentalist activity seen today, albeit taken to extreme circumstances.
Offred works in the house of a “commander” high within the ruling class. Throughout this single actor production, we see the daily habits of Offred under the eye of this regime. She lives in a small room, devoid of privacy with a window that can only partially open and stripped of any items potentially harmful. She must wear an ankle-length red gown the color of blood and keep her face hidden from men. Women cannot be seen in public, are forbidden to hold down jobs, and are not allowed to write. She fulfills a necessary desire by obtaining third hand news from her walking partner on grocery shopping trips and through propaganda television reports. They only show the victories, never the defeats.
She endures ritualistic sexual and psychological abuses. Handmaids are national resources for breeding and the burden for the blame of potential barrenness is theirs, with the ever-present threat of their failure being exile to the colonies with the “Unwomen”. Offred finds a routine and even a certain rebellious kink after the illicit offer of a scrabble game from her commander. But this sensual liberation is not freedom. As she finds an acceptance and an ordinary routine behind this prison-like atmosphere, she is also losing all that mattered to her from the time before. She barely recognizes her child seen in a stolen photo and believes the child would never remember her. A partner in crime from the time before and an icon for a hopeful end to the oppression becomes a “jezebel” fulfilling late night wishes for the whims of the powerful. Offred is disappearing into this stifling world, stepping from shadow to obscurity. The play lures us in with a certain ambiguity surrounding our heroine’s fate, but it gives us no reason to believe that its conclusions will be anything positive.
Isa St. Clair’s self-aware performance is poignant, personal, and universal. We are with the handmaid through each reconstruction of her story, through each reconnection with the world before and with each shivering moment of contact, real or imaginary. The reality of her sensory world is haunting. St. Clair captivates from the beginning to the end and carries this play with each suggestive glance and fanning of her fingers seemingly touching a time from Offred’s past rapidly slipping away.
Joseph Stollenwerks adaptation honors Atwood’s descriptive power and sly voice perfectly. Enough cannot be said about the effect of Paul Kuhn’s stark set of a single structure on a rotating stage. This allows us to peer into Offred’s life within this claustrophobic environment and follow her as she walks us through this new world. It is this insight into her habits that allows us to be the audience Offred needs to know is listening. The usage of shadows in Tim Martin’s lighting fosters this ambiguity as to the future of Offred. This production challenges us to question how we would handle such restrictive conditions and if we wouldn’t come to accept as ordinary what might seem extreme. Context is everything.
[4740 Baltimore Avenue] October 15-November 14, 2015; curiotheatre.org.