December 3, 2014

The Handmaid’s Tale coming to the stage


© Abe Books

© Abe Books

Apparently not content merely to conquer the world of HBO, Margaret Atwood is also making a move to take the theater by storm. Broadway World reported this week that a stage adaptation of Atwood’s novel The Handmaid’s Tale is coming to Cincinnati next month.

Set in a not-very-distant future, The Handmaid’s Tale takes place in a dystopian America where women’s rights have been stripped away, and they’re placed into castes such as handmaids, wives, econowives, and unwomen. A military dictatorship has taken over and renamed the country the Republic of Gilead, and with sterility rampant, handmaids are chosen for their fertility and assigned to bear children for high-ranking officers and their wives. The novel follows the handmaid Offred (a name she has to take from her master Fred, hence of-Fred) as she struggles with the oppression of her position, eventually discovering a resistance movement and attempting an escape.

While the book has been adapted into a play in the UK, this seems to be the first major undertaking of it on the American stage. Joe Stollenwerk wrote the script for the show’s run at Cincinnati’s Know Theatre, a project that’s been on his mind for years. His first draft, completed in 2006, clocked in at a rather unreasonable six hours long; he describes some of his creative process to Broadway World:

I first read The Handmaid’s Tale in a course on feminism and utopia/dystopia in literature in 2002. This was in the wake of 9/11 and it seemed that our country might all too easily be teetering on the brink of something reminiscent of Gilead from this novel. I immediately began thinking about turning it into a play… I cut, and cut, and cut, always trying to be mindful that I wanted to preserve the plot and characters but also the social/political commentary as well as the marvelous language Atwood employs.

Stollenwerk workshopped his script at the Cincinnati Shakespeare Company, with a dark night production (i.e. without an audience) in 2011. Artistic director Andrew Hungerford says that The Handmaid’s Tale is “a great fit for Know’s commitment to second productions of plays and our development of local works.” The show will run at Know from January 23-February 21, 2015.


Nick Davies is a publicist at Melville House.