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It Was a Long Journey, But Local Husband-Wife Team & Playwright Bring World Premiere to Stage

The world premiere of The Handmaid’s Tale at Know Theatre, a solo performance of the Margaret Atwood classic, has been years in the making – with plenty of twists along the way, not least of which was being the buzziest show in Cincinnati in a workshop five years ago.
 
Cincinnati Shakespeare’s Corinne Mohlenhoff starred and Brian Isaac Phillips directed – roles they take again when The Handmaid’s Tale gets its formal debut Jan. 23 - Feb. 20. 
 
You think theater is easy? Here’s how The Handmaid’s Tale journeyed to the stage.
 
Mohlenhoff can’t remember exactly when Cincinnati native Joe Stollenwerk handed her Atwood’s dystopian masterpiece of an America in the near future. Definitely more than 10 years ago. “He said, ‘this is a great book, you need to read this.’”
 
She took the book but when he asked her a couple months later if she’d read it, she hadn’t. This time, Stollenwerk, who had been a busy theater maker and writer in Cincinnati before he moved on, told her he was trying to adapt it for the stage. She read it.
 
Mohlenhoff liked Atwood’s story of a woman’s struggle to retain her individuality, personality, and even hope in this Tale about gender roles, love, fertility, religion, rebellion, memory… 
 
“It was very accessible, the voice of the main character (Offred, forced to become a Handmaid, a vessel for population growth) was very strong. I had no idea how he was going to accomplish it…” 
 
It was a few years later when Stollenwerk had a script. But Mohlenhoff was pregnant. Very pregnant. They staged a reading “just to hear it” – which was all they could have done because the rights were withheld.
 
And continued to be withheld.
 
Stollenwerk persevered and finally got permission for a brief, off-night engagement at Cincinnati Shakespeare. Phillips, who’s married to Mohlenhoff, and is Cincinnati Shakespeare’s producing artistic director, remembers rehearsing in the living room with new baby Holden sleeping upstairs. 
 
The Handmaid’s Tale's short run became a hot ticket and Phillips stands firm that it was the best show at CSC that season. 
 
They were urged to go for a Chicago engagement and the CSC Facebook page was hearing from actresses all over the country, Phillips said, wanting to know how to get the rights. But rights were again unavailable. And again, stayed unavailable. For years.
 
“As time goes by,” Phillips noted, “you lose momentum.”
 
While Mohlenhoff had “no huge ambition” to pursue the project – there was a full-time job, a second baby, and solo shows “get lonely.” After opening night, Phillips leaves to take care of the kids and she’s spending the evening with the stage manager, who are lovely people, but…
 
All the while, Stollenwerk kept pursuing rights. Meanwhile, Phillips and Know’s new artistic director Andrew Hungerford were talking the current season and scheduling, since Hungerford moonlights as Cincinnati Shakespeare’s resident scenic designer. 
 
Hungerford had lost the rights to a show in the January-February slot. He wanted something with a small cast and a strong female voice. At the same time, Mohlenhoff was originally scheduled to make her annual Cincinnati Shakespeare appearance in the upcoming Taming of the Shrew until the concept took a turn.
 
Handmaid’s Tale was a perfect solution except – still no rights. 
 
Then, just before Christmas, Stollenwerk called Hungerford and said, more or less, "I know it’s probably too late, but they just gave me the rights.”
 
It was definitely not too late. 
 
Phillips teases Mohlenhoff that she couldn’t resist taking up the script again. “Anxiety and existential dread about the world falling apart – that’s her sweet spot.”
 
Mohlenhoff laughs. “It’s really a story of how a woman adapts and changes to keep going. How she finds hope in telling her story.” They agree that there’s a little something deeper in her approach now that she’s experienced a few years of motherhood – and is the mother of a daughter.
 
Phillips is pleased that this time the play has a set designed for it (at CSC, it worked around Julius Caesar) and there’s actual tech rehearsal time. He’s most pleased that Cincinnati Shakespeare can take some credit for this world premiere. “It started with us. It’s a great way to get people aware of Cincinnati Shakespeare.”
 
Phillips was at the annual national Shakespeare conference early this month and, he reported happily, “I was talking it up.” That was news to Mohenhoff. Could that mean another performance of the play sometime in the future? “No,” Mohlenhoff said firmly. Phillips looked at her. “Third time’s the charm.” 
 
The Handmaid’s Tale, Jan. 23-Feb. 20. Know Theatre, 1120 Jackson St., Over-the-Rhine. 8 p.m.  Wednesday-Saturday, 3 p.m. Sunday. Tickets $20. Free on Wednesdays. 513-300-5669 and https://know.tixato.com/buy
 
Written by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts
 
Photo: Corinne Mohlenhoff in The Handmaid's Tale (photo by Daniel R. Winters)
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