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Theatre Review: "Handmaid's Tale" is Know's Best Show this Season

Know Theatre’s main stage has its best showing of the year to date with The Handmaid’s Tale, a solo performance adaptation of Margaret Atwood’s vision of a dystopia that has replaced the democracy that was the United States.
 
Corinne Mohlenhoff holds the stage for two hours (with an intermission break) as Offred, who, in the new totalitarian regime, is assigned the role of “handmaid,” a “vessel” for population growth. It’s a performance that reminds us what a loss it is that she only performs occasionally these days.
 
 
We meet Offred, safely covered head to foot in the style of a religious sect. She is in her room, which feels like a cell. A nightstand and lamp, but nothing to read. (Forbidden.) A bed that is only slightly more welcoming than a cot. (The headstand looks a bit too pleasing.)
 
There is ‘freedom’ to move about, but never to go unwatched. There is ‘freedom’ to converse, but only state-approved pleasantries, spoken in a whisper. There are spies everywhere. Many things earn a penalty of death, with new bodies on view daily.
 
Joseph Stollenwerk, who faithfully adapts the cautionary novel to the stage, embraces Atwood’s rich attention to detail in the everyday-ness of the horror Offred lives through. And Mohlenhoff gives life to a woman struggling to maintain identity and hope and find some resolution to conflicting emotions.
 
Mohlenhoff creates a supporting cast, too, primarily the household Offred is assigned to, and key handmaids. There are whispered rumors of freedom fighters beneath the propaganda. 
 
There is the ritual of mating with the commander. There is the fear of what will become of her if she doesn’t become pregnant. There is the temptation of the handyman. 
 
Tale is too long – there’s something about totalitarian regimes that gets monotonous (at least when, happily, you’re not living in one.) 
 
But Mohlenhoff with director Brian Isaac Phillips maintains the tension, creates arresting stage pictures and introduces us to a fully dimensional, intriguingly flawed woman. It’s Mohlenhoff’s compelling performance that’s worth the price of admission. 
 
The Handmaid’s Tale, through 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 here.
 
Written by Jackie Demaline, RCN Arts
 
Photo: Corinne Mohlenhoff in The Handmaid's Tale (photo by Daniel R. Winters)
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