All Things Entertaining and Cultural
Atwood’s Medieval Christian milieu is more frightening, or at least sparks more curiosity, because it is the set in the future. Thirty years ago, the author was prescient enough to predicate the subjugation of Americans to an attack blamed on Islamic terrorists. The military, then Christians, take over the United States, annul the Constitution, and inflict martial law that consigns the majority of the populace, and particularly women, to menial or ignoble tasks that serve a spoiled and decadent ruling class. The enslaved may be considered the lucky ones. Many, in the style of Iran’s current regime and the Hitlers and Stalins of the recent past, are put to summary death on the new leadership’s whim.
Offred, the woman who tells Atwood’s story like a modern-day epilogue to Chaucer, is a handmaid. In Gilead, the country that supplants the United States, that means she is primarily a child-bearer for the nobility. Her job is to increase a dwindling Gilead population by having repeated sex — well, three go’s — with a leader of the Gilead establishment, called a commander, in an effort to conceive and deliver a healthy child. Much ceremony marks a handmaid’s success. Failure to become pregnant could lead to a new assignment or death by execution. Bearing a deformed or sickly child can mean death for both the handmaid and the baby. Offred derives her name from being in the household of a commander named Fred. She is, literally, of Fred, She is chosen for her task because she bore a child before the revolution and is known to be fertile, as Fred’s wife, the former television evangelist, Serena Joy, is not. Serena will, at times, control Offred by divulging or withholding news of her daughter, who has been taken from and sent to live with an elite Gilead family.
Atwood spins a compelling tale. As it unfolds, it arouses your wonder about what happens next more than it is impresses you with its wisdom, sensibility, or commentary about women. The imaginativeness of Atwood’s yarn is its appeal. You long to know how many details Atwood can invent to make Gilead more and more crushingly unbearable ,and you become consumed with all that happens to and around Offred. Atwood, like the good plotter and instinctive populist she is, knows enough to leaven her story with some humor, the portrait of Serena Joy and a commander who enjoys games of Scrabble for example, and to ladle in some passages of lurid sex, such as Offred’s encounters, encouraged by Serena Joy, with the commander’s chauffeur, Nick. She’s also canny in making Offred’s sex rituals with the commander, a procedure mandated in Gilead’s code, full of the tawdry bondage and prurient details that are making E.L. James so wealthy with her “Grey” series.
Storytelling begins as an oral tradition, and Atwood’s saga is particularly ripe for telling. There’s so much shrewd, “Wait, it gets better” to it. Hearing Offred’s observations and experiences, before and after the putsch, makes them more immediate. Hearing them in the theater also places before you a physical being with whom you can empathize and for whom you can wish for escape from the ritualistically perverted existence she’s forced to live.
Ages ago, while reading “The Handmaid’s Tale” (in preparation for interviewing Natasha Richardson, who played Offred in the 1990 movie), I laughed openly as some of Atwood’s clever manipulation of her audience. Listening to Isa St. Clair relate Offred’s story in Joseph Stollenwerk’s adaptation at Curio Theatre, I was more taken with the horrors of Offred’s life than the deftly effective trickery in Atwood’s writing. St. Clair is sincere and vulnerable. She humanizes her character and describes an existence that could not be taken on any level for a joke, not even in randy scenes with Nick or when the commander takes Offred to a licentious nightclub/brothel (which does have an ancillary benefit in letting Offred see one of her friends from handmaid training, Moira, as a prostitute or “Jezebel,” a double shock because Moira is Lesbian so the regime finds making her service men more punishing the usual sentence of suicidal labor in a region called The Colonies).
St. Clair, in a lovely reading that could benefit from slowing down is some places but is laudable as it stands, makes you care about the woman is front of you. Her Offred has the decency to be shamed by her position and to feel all of the degradation and subjugation it engenders. When she talks about sex with Nick, or even her relation with the husband with whom she was trying to flee to Canada when the Gilead forces found them, St. Clair remains matter-of-fact. She enjoys her sessions with Nick, but she doesn’t exuberate over them. She misses her husband, Luke, but she speaks of him in nostalgic wonder as opposed to longing or even profound sadness.
St. Clair’s Offred has been drained of emotion. It’s not that she doesn’t have feelings. She has put them aside, placed them in perspective, so she can deal with her present plight, which includes snubbing from the equally enslaved but more respectably employed cook, called a Martha, and daily walks to market having insipid conversations with another handmaid, Ofglen. Offred talks about the things she thinks about while lying in bed dreading her next day, her fears and her memories, in an even-handed way that lets her cope with her duties regarding the commander, her fragile peace with Serena Joy, and the repetitive life of a handmaid, who is shunned by the rest of society and has to wear a long, modest red dress to show her station.
St. Clair clearly conveys the careful rigidity of Gilead. She keeps our attention as she talks about her training by “aunts” who used cattle prods and other devices to foment anonymity, submission, and obedience among the handmaids, and frequently quotes the aunts in a subtle way that seems reportorial as she speaks but registers with due irony to the audience. Her relation of her responsibilities and how they’re carried out is done without emphasis or emotion, but again the banality of evil, to quote Hannah Arendt, comes through all she says. You understand Offred’s discontent but are also aware of the resignation to her assignment and why she has to keep much to herself. Her walks with Ofglen, for instance, are filled with conversational inanity because handmaids are often told to spy one another, and Oflgen could report Offred to the secret police, called The Eye, if she say anything that sounds rebellious or counterrevolutionary.
St. Clair is remarkable in several ways. One is her ability to hold her audience’s attention and keep it in thrall for the two hours (including intermission) it takes for Offred tells her story. The other is her fluency of speech. St. Clair may have paused for effect or paced some secondary character’s lines in a way different from Offred’s, but she never noticeably stumbled or halted during a monologue that it would be anunderstatement to call exhaustive and demanding.
Clarity and the ability to involve the listener are the hallmarks of St. Clair’s estimable performance. She covers some of the more contrived elements of Atwood’s story by making Offred’s situation so real and so plaintive. She makes you care about the character. She leads you to be unmitigatedly appalled by her the conditions of her existence and takes away any of the eye-rolling amusement I had while reading Atwood. As noted earlier, irony is gone. St. Clair’s Offred is a woman in a horrid situation among leaders who have no use for women, except an ornaments or bear children, and who keep them illiterate and subject to crippling hard labor. You see the seams and maneuvering in Atwood’s plot, but they are no longer scary and silly at the same time. Concern prevails because Isa St. Clair has engendered that concern. She’s cultivated it in a way that makes you listen and makes you want the best for Offred.
St. Clair measures her performance so you easily glean all new information and appreciate Offred’s high points and breakthroughs. Stollenwerk’s script is more of a recitation than a play, but St. Clair, no doubt with the help of director M. Craig Getting, builds in levels that helps keep Offred’s story flowing.
Getting is careful to keep St. Clair mobile, so the eye is engaged as well as the ear. The rhythm of his production keeps matters from getting tiresome, and Stollenwerk helps by keeping information fresh and not repeating details or incidents.
Paul Kuhn’s set is intricate and gives St. Clair space to wander. You don’t have to imagine Offred going to the commander’s study because a winding staircase leads her there. The slats that serve as he bed underline the Spartan existence of the handmaid whose day is often spent in isolation. The curved scrim that serves as the background for the set also allows for some creative use of shadows.
The red dress Aetna Gallagher designed is appropriately unadorned and handsome. It lends Offred dignity even as it announces her utilitarian status. Stollenwerk’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” is a solo piece in which St. Clair plays all of the characters. It requires only one costume, but Curio has mounted a display of items related to “The Handmaid’s Tale,” and you can see a Martha dress and other exhibits there.
“The Handmaid’s Tale: runs through Saturday, November 14, at the Curio Theatre, 4740 Baltimore Avenue (48th and Baltimore), in Philadelphia. Showtimes are 8 p.m. Thursday through Saturday. Tickets are $25 with discounts available and can be obtained by calling 215-525-1350 or by visiting http://www.curiotheatre.org.