Glow Lyric Theatre 2023 Festival Review: The Handmaid’s Tale

Stepping Into Gilead with a Stellar Cast Leading the Way

By Afton Wooten

Despite the weighty subject matter and current human rights issues at hand, Glow Lyric Theatre’s 2023 Festival production of Poul Ruders and Paul Bentley’s “The Handmaid’s Tale” held nothing back. The curtains open to display “Under His Eye,” one of the aphorisms used by the patriarchal, totalitarian, dystopian Republic of Gilead, at center stage. Other tenets such as “Blessed be the Fruit” and “May the Lord Open” are dispersed throughout the levels of the stage, with the glowing red emblem of Gilead overhead.

The Aunts played by powerhouse sopranos Ashley Becker as Aunt Lydia, and Caroline Starling as Moira’s Aunt/Warren’s Wife, intimidatingly pace the lengths of the stage with cattle prods in hand. Together they listed off the new commandments and set the tone for the world we were dropped into. Becker’s voice exhibited impeccable control over the extremes of her range. She showed off her fierce soprano with intense high notes, contrasted by the darkness in her lower register. This mixed with her precise sergeant-like movements to create a believable and well-performed character. While Starling had less solo time, her doubling with Becker was a nice pairing, both vocally and as a scene partner.

The Complex Role of Offred

The protagonist Offred is a difficult character to perform for many reasons. To start, the majority of the score is written in a modern atonal and narrative style. But, the vocal demands do not stop there. Two arias, several mini-arias, a challenging duet, quartet, and an aria over recorded speech are what’s in store for Offred. Soprano Katherine Fili made all of this seem effortless. Her brilliant handling of the difficult text did not go unnoticed. Her diction was clear and easily understood. She used the text to develop and refine Offred.

Stepping away from the opera for a moment is necessary to understand why Fili’s performance was so outstanding. As I said previously, Offred is a complex character. Since the conception of “The Handmaid’s Tale” TV series in 2017, many people have come to associate the character of Offred through Elisabeth Moss’s portrayal. In this, she is seen as a defiant rebel willing to risk everything in order to be reconnected with her daughter. While this Offred made a way into pop culture, the Offred in the book is much different. Margret Attwood’s original Offred is passive and readers do not learn her real name in the book. She is not protesting in the “before times” or ruthlessly fighting back. These are two very different characters.

In Act one, Fili presents Offred in line with the book. She franticly follows along with self-damning chants and shows remorse for her actions. As the opera progressed Fili’s careful consideration of phrases and acting choices showed the audience more of the mainstream Offred. Each repetition of “May the Lord Open” and “Under His Eye” became slightly more pointed. Offred’s turning point comes in the scene where Commander Fred, played by Wil Kellerman, caresses her during the ceremony. As she sings the echoed line “my body,” a new layer of Offred emerges. Jenna Tamisiea Elser‘s direction and Fili’s ability to carefully present Offred in a way that represented both personas is praiseworthy.

Full-Body Chills

Mezzo-soprano Diane Schoff gave an extraordinary performance as the infamous Serena Joy. Schoff’s smoky voice and lush low notes created the right amount of coarseness to the character’s soundscape. She gave a haunting a cappella performance of “Amazing Grace” that countered Fili’s mini aria, “The House in the Day.”

The eerie flashback, “We’re Coming to Get You,” performed by Offred’s Double soprano Emlynn Shoemaker and tenor Mason Montuoro, stole the show. Shoemaker and Montuoro’s pretending to play hide-and-go-seek with their daughter, counteracted by the Eyes hunting for handmaids on the top level of the stage, was an incredible display of Jenna Tamisiea Elser’s cohesive direction and set design.

More Outstanding Highlights

There is some relief from the cruelty and horror within “The Handmaid’s Tale.” Soprano Ariel Andrew‘s confident and easygoing Moira gave the audience a moment to breathe. Andrew’s rich, warm, and open tone created a relaxed stage presence. Her Moira was about taking everything in stride. TJ Turner’s crystalline high tenor was a delight to listen to, as well. He gave a solid performance as both the Doctor and Commander X.

Bryon K. Black‘s musical direction was outstanding. The onstage chamber orchestra’s balance of intensity and minimalism was well applauded.


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