In William Shakespeare's Othello, first staged about 410 years ago, Desdemona is a pretty picture of unsullied innocence, a vision of wifely devotion and not much else.
While some have suggested that Shakespeare might rightly have titled his tragedy "Iago"—the hateful ensign has the most lines and it's his scheming that drives the action—it's doubtful that anybody ever suggested calling the drama Desdemona. As painted by Shakespeare, the doomed beauty is a symbol of virtue and, like most symbols, boring as hell.
But because this young woman angered her father and scandalized the Venetian leisure class when she eloped with Othello, an old general with dark skin, audiences have long suspected that there was more to Desdemona than meets the eye.
And maybe that's why Paula Vogel's take on the tragedy packs such a punch. Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief, which opened last weekend at Beowulf Alley Theatre Company, sticks closely to Shakespeare's story, but changes the point of view. The jealous Othello and the other men are banished to the sidelines so that Desdemona can take center stage at last.
Vogel's Desdemona is the furthest thing from innocent. No, she did not sleep with Cassio, as Othello is made to believe. But she did have energetic sex with six johns the previous Tuesday, filling in for the whore Bianca and enjoying every heated minute in the dark.
Desdemona, see, is already disillusioned with her new husband. She had convinced herself that marrying the Moor would be a ticket to exotic adventure, but now she knows that black skin is sometimes just black skin. Her man is chained to the customs of the day, and because a woman's fate depended entirely on her husband's, Desdemona tries mightily, if unsuccessfully, to break free.
Vogel, who won a Pulitzer Prize for How I Learned to Drive in 1998, needs less than 90 minutes and just three characters to tell Shakespeare's familiar tale: Desdemona, her attendant Emilia (Iago's wife) and the aforementioned Bianca.
The most obvious miracle of Vogel's 1993 play is how neatly it fits within the larger framework of Othello, illuminating and somehow expanding the original. The other miracle is how the intermissionless play inspires such constant laughter.
The laughs do not lessen the tragedy bearing down on Desdemona and Emilia—quite the opposite, in fact. We laugh because these women are so fully human, and because they are so fully human, it hurts all the more when their fate is sealed.
Candace Bean gives us a haughty, naughty Desdemona whose shrieks of delight provide a welcome flip side to the Desdemona we thought we knew. Her exceptional performance is matched by Diana Ouradnik, who brings an earthy intensity and knowing air to Emilia. The chemistry between these two gives the relationship an electric edge.
The director, Nicole Scott, brings a seriousness of purpose and a less-is-more flair to the Beowulf Alley production. Her staging, hampered only by the awkward blackouts, half of which should be eliminated, is ultimately more confident and successful than her performance as Bianca.
But if the portrayal of bawdy Bianca seemed a bit shaky on opening night, it's mostly because the bar was set so high by the other two performances. By the time Bianca sashays into the action, we are hopelessly hooked on Desdemona and in a forgiving mood.
The play, which is not about a handkerchief, is fascinating because it plays with our understanding of Othello. By presenting these fully rounded women, all of whom amplify our previous notions of Othello, Vogel's play is not really a departure from Shakespeare. It's more like a revelation of hidden truths.
Although there are no men onstage in Desdemona, the brutal patriarchy hangs over everything like a dark shadow. The play stands on its own, and yet it's enriched by Othello itself, which seems to unfold simultaneously—out of sight but hardly out of mind.
If Desdemona is a thrilling companion to, and comment on, the enduring thing called Othello, MacBeth's Knife is the thing itself. Billed as a new adaptation of the Scottish play, it's probably more accurate to call it MacBeth's Greatest Hits.
The words are straight outta Shakespeare, which makes it more of a challenge than Vogel's more contemporary text. Because the cast of nine handles the language with wildly varying levels of expertise, and because the design and direction are more haphazard than artful, MacBeth's Knife emerges as the lesser of the two shows running in rotating repertory at Beowulf Alley's downtown theater.
But there are pleasures to be had, starting with its fast pace. If you are going to produce a drastically edited version of Shakespeare, especially in the absence of a coherent artistic vision, then 'twere well it were done quickly.
Still, MacBeth is one of Shakespeare's most quoted plays and even when the Beowulf cast rushes or declaims, the famous words hit the mark as often as not.
Michael Fenlason's streamlined version of the supernatural tragedy is done in about 90 minutes, and that's a good thing. But one result is that the storytelling stumbles badly, a reminder that Shakespeare is not so easily trimmed. Unless you know the plot inside and out, you'll likely be confused now and then by who is killing whom and why.
Directed by Fenlason, Beowulf Alley's artistic director, MacBeth's Knife is more weird than wicked. Despite winning moments from Aaron Guisinger as MacBeth and Bree Boyd-Martin as Lady MacBeth, the acting is often overwrought and sometimes shrill.
The bare-bones set, which works just fine for Desdemona, is less effective here. It's clear that not enough toil and trouble went into the production design (even the dagger, less threatening than a butter knife, is a disappointment).
Amber Roberts, costume designer for both shows, appears to have run out of creative steam somewhere between Desdemona and MacBeth. The paucity of ideas is most obvious with the witches, played by two giggly women and a girlish man. Like the rest of the cast, only more so, these sisters are doing it for themselves.