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The Handmaid’s Tale (Curio Theater, 23Oct15)

What they say it is:

After a staged terrorist attack, a Christian Theocracy overthrows the United States.  Suddenly, Offred’s life is thrown into subjugation, she must become a Handmaid to increase population growth. A cautionary tale that predicts our worst fears of fundamentalism, Margaret Atwood’s 1985 novel comes to life in this daring one-woman adaptation.

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How did she do it?  How did Ms. St. Clair hold the attention of her audience for over 2 hours?  How did this amazing performer memorize hundreds of lines of text?  I wonder what steps she takes to preserve her voice during rehearsals and shows–I imagine she drinks a great deal of honey & tea to coat her throat?

For readers unfamiliar familiar with the text, The Handmaid’s Tale is a book by Margaret Atwood.  The story describes a dystopian future centered around fanatical religious practices and scant female fertility.  Ms. St. Clair plays the role of a fertile woman in this new society, who simultaneously recalls her life before the societal shift, and who privately ponders the radical changes that the “new ordinary” has brought to her life.  The handmaid relays her tale to the audience by way of an inner monologue.  Writing has been forbidden by the new order,  leading the handmaid to remark, “I am telling the story to myself in my mind- but there is always someone else”.   

Once again Curio’s set design is to be applauded.  We are introduced to the actress by seeing shadowed form projected onto the fabric “wall” facing the audience.  The stage then fully rotates one-hundred and eighty degrees (a major surprise for the audience) to reveal a room where the handmaid lives.  The stage’s rotating feature is used quite effectively to create a sense of space and interesting movement throughout the rest of the show.

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Even though The Handmaid’s Tale only includes one actor and a minimal set–a bed, a staircase and a few wooden blocks–the show does do a good job of holding the audience’s attention.  The stage set and costume design are intentionally simple, showing us the the minimalistic life required of these future people.  Also, her world is mostly blank and lacks any intellectual or physical stimuli.  However, in sharp contrast, the handmaid’s blood-red nun-like habit leaps out against the muted grays of the stage.

Kudos to the stage designer for the imaginative use of a unique, circular set to embody the “circle of time” . . .  trends and societal habits come and go, history inevitably repeats itself . . .  all these of these dark ideas and customs have happened before–and they will probably happen again–as human society evolves and, sadly, inevitably devolves.    The only negative critique I had regarding the set design is that the stage motor is slightly loud, and can occasionally distract from the monologue.  Also, there were moments when the lighting was shining directly into the audience’s eyes–not the most comfortable feature of the show.

Kudos to Ms. St. Clair–she did an excellent marathon monologue that was engaging and true to the original text.  The play’s ending is definitely a stand-out scene as the actress successfully built the tension and excitement that leads to the plays conclusion.  In summary conclusion, I would recommend The Handmaid’s Tale, with one cautionary note that at two hours, the production has a somewhat long run time.

NEW Clay Says graphic Ernie

In the interest of getting this post up in a timelier-than-typical manner (we attended opening night, therefore hope to help support Curio Theater by this small promotional gesture), I’ll keep my comments short.

I’ve never read the The Handmaid’s Tale source text; Tara (who has) assured me that the show was loyal to the book.  My reaction to the actress (it’s a one-woman show) was similar to Tara’s–Isa St. Clair is a powerhouse actress with memorization skills that would put many professional performers (I’m looking at you, cue-card obsessed SNL cast) to shame.  Tara wasn’t kidding when she said this show runs long–with only a 15 minute intermission, St. Clair speaks, virtually non-stop, for well over 100 minutes.  Tara even commented that, having attended this performance, I really don’t need to read the book at all–she was essentially rendering Atwood’s text verbatim.  Her voice and delivery were mesmerizing and incredible; she could lilt and dip from high energy to low darkness, or veer from comedic to tragic in a moment–and successfully carried an entire show through the force of her narrative skill.  When I’d entered Curio and realized this one clocked in at a meaty two hours, I admit that I was skeptical–if this didn’t come off well, I might napping by the halfway mark.  Instead, through skillful recitation, the helpful hooks of a renowned book, and her singular poise and performance, St. Clair’s Handmaid pulled me into her dark world for the entire evening.

The entranceway to the show is already a portal into the Handmaid's world

The entranceway to the show is already a portal into the Handmaid’s world

The impressive (not to mention large) rotating stage was used to particularly excellent effect during scenes when the Handmaid goes strolling through ‘the city’ with various associates from her prison-home.  St. Clair paces at the speed of the set’s rotation, and our perception of the bedroom world melts away, her words (describing dark scenes around her) overlaying what our eyes would otherwise tell us.  Here is the proof that can indeed motion trump form, and words, if used well, can obscure fact.  Curio looks to operate on a humble budget, but as with many other events we’ve seen from this troupe, Paul Kuhn’s sets are works of theatrical accomplishment that always constitute major parts of the show itself.  I’d also note that the lighting of this production was top notch; with a minimal landscape and few distracting features, the colors and fades of the stage illumination became more important than even in a typical theater show.  Here, the crossfades of dim blues and reds provided subtle emphasis and emotional transitions that served the set and actress quite well.   I found myself noticing how well they worked–and these aren’t items I’m usually attuned to.

The Handmaid's Habit

The Handmaid’s Habit

If I had a negative comment, it might be related to my own interests in story and theater, rather than this show’s own embodiment.  By way of explanation, I admit that I’m not particularly inclined to love what I refer to as ‘issues theater’–certainly, my life includes a vast interest in social justice, politics, and the betterment of the world around me–but when it comes to art, I tend to prefer more comedic, abstract, or imaginative pieces.  I’m not always thrilled when a song or a show’s fundamental intention is to convince or educate me on some real-world topic (especially since I usually already agree with whatever the show is trying to say).  I guess I’m just a disgusting, disinclined-to-care aesthete–so sue me. ;’]  In any case, The Handmaid’s Tale struck this first-time ‘reader’ as an alternate version of Orwell’s unparalleled masterpiece 1984.  This similarity was unfortunate for me.  Because I was unfamiliar with Atwood’s book (a failing I intend to correct), I found myself wondering if the handmaid’s story is a sort of wannabe pretender, a forced gender-based reinterpretation of a seminal classic.  I certainly do not mean to sound insensitive or sexist, but as I remarked to Tara, the comparative difficulty for The Handmaid’s Tale is one of standing in the shadow of a titanic book–one that defines an entire form of literature.  Mostly, it was ok, though–the story is still interesting, and the female narrator’s voice a mostly unique version of Orwell’s male protagonist.  So I do see the value.   And I unquestionably liked this show–do not mistake this bloggy rant as anything other than my own reflections on personal taste and politics-in-art.  Still…if I were directing, I’d unquestionably cut the scene in which the handmaid women loudly shout (a group chant channeled, naturally and amazingly, by the single actress) that rape is the fault of the victim.  It was just too . . . well . . . blisteringly overt for this viewer.  I get it.  This is a disgusting problem in our society, without a doubt, end of sentence.  A bit more subtlety of messaging isn’t a terrible thing in art, however.

Go see this show.  The Handmaid’s Tale runs Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at Curio Theater in West Philadelphia.  You’ll be glad you did–even if the future, per this show, isn’t the brightest place.  However, as the handmade advised us, “people can get used to anything”.  Go see for yourself.

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