What if Shakespeare got everything about the women in Othello wrong? That's the assumption in Paula Vogel's Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief, a short but artful and provocative piece enjoying an excellent production at Live Theatre Workshop.
Vogel won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for drama for How I Learned to Drive, but the slightly earlier Desdemona is actually a better play. Vogel cluttered How I Learned to Drive with cartoonish subsidiary characters and a self-conscious narrative format that detracted from the intense and realistic relationship between the two central figures, a teenage girl and her molesting uncle. In Desdemona, Vogel limited herself to only three characters, each of them splendidly drawn--no thanks to Shakespeare.
In Othello, you may recall, the title character is a brilliant Moorish general of high standing in Venetian society, although his status as a racial outsider does cause him some insecurity. This manifests itself in a desperate jealousy regarding his high-born Venetian wife, Desdemona. Iago, an underling passed over for a promotion, plots revenge by making it appear that Desdemona is having an affair with the man who got the job he wanted. Iago accomplishes this by having his own wife, Emilia, who happens to be Desdemona's servant, steal a handkerchief Othello had given Desdemona so that Iago can plant it in his rival's room. This being Shakespeare, the play ends with Othello, Desdemona and Emilia lying dead on the floor, while Iago is dragged off to a similar fate.
In Desdemona, Vogel filches not a handkerchief, but Shakespeare's three female characters--Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca, "a courtezan" (here reduced to a common prostitute)--and creates for them a complementary but quite different story. Vogel sneaks into Desdemona's apartment to discover what roles these women had to play to survive in a man's world, or simply to negotiate relationships among themselves.
The 75-minute play breaks into 30 scenes separated by blackouts, momentary absences of action suggesting where the male half of the story has been withdrawn. Yet Vogel is by no means filling in "missing" scenes from Othello; this is a whole new story, no longer Shakespeare's.
Shakespeare's Desdemona is a wronged model of virtuous womanhood; Vogel's is a promiscuous, slightly spoiled rich girl so desperate for new experiences and personal liberty that she happily fills in for Bianca one slow Tuesday at the brothel. (Hmm ... self-empowerment through prostitution: There's a topic sure to set feminists off against each other.) Shakespeare's Emelia is practical, and mildly defends a woman's right to infidelity; Vogel's is a righteous Catholic resigned to making the best of a miserable marriage and bedmate. Shakespeare's Bianca isn't around long enough to make a strong impression, but she does muster some self-respect despite, or possibly because of, the fact that men have commodified her; Vogel's is a professional slut whom Desdemona praises as the model of the "new woman," but who dreams of marrying a nobleman and settling down into a conventional life.
Bianca's marital aspirations; Emelia's weary understanding that a woman of her low status can rise only through the social progress of her husband; Desdemona's own hopes that the exotic black Othello would transport her to a new realm of experiences--all three of these women, in their different ways, are looking to men to lift them out of their stifling worlds.
This play is about class almost as much as it is about feminist and anti-feminist constructions of reality, and Vogel reinforces her characters' social standing through their accents, while playing on the old-fashioned notion that Shakespeare should be delivered with British accents. Bianca is a cockney, spouting amusing but incomprehensible slang. Emelia is middle-class Irish, devout and priggish but not exactly naïve. As for Desdemona, you'd expect her to adopt an upper-class English accent, but in this production, Dana Armstrong plays her as an ordinary American, no doubt to make the audience identify with her more. This Desdemona is not a haughty Brit; she's a more grown-up, less rag-tag Cyndi Lauper here to inform us that girls just want to have fun.
Serious issues--and lives--are at stake here, but Vogel's script is often quite funny, up until the desolate last scenes. Vogel resists the temptation to write pseudo-Shakespearean lines, but she does employ cadences and vocabulary that could pass for Shakespeare in a completely modern setting; searching for the missing handkerchief, Desdemona sputters, "Oh, piss and vinegar! Where is the crappy little snot rag?"
Vogel wants her play to have a cinematic effect, which director Jeremy Thompson obliges by not blacking out the stage at the end of each scene, but fading the lights and turning on a strobe for a few seconds while the actresses reposition. This suggests all at once a cinematic dissolve, the flickering of old silent movies, and the storm that will soon be taking place outdoors and within these women's lives.
Thompson's minimal set allows the audience to focus on the actresses, each of whom moves and speaks with a sure but complex sense of purpose.
Armstrong's Desdemona is not as bratty as she might be, but that makes her more sympathetic to those of us who are not spoiled little rich girls. She's self-absorbed but not cruel, and touchingly delusional in her self-confidence; she has no idea that she'll never be able to talk her way out of the dreadful situation the Othello-Iago conflict has placed her in.
Christina Owen is a marvelously complicated Emelia, a tangle of basic decency, religious inhibition (and faith-based comfort), smoldering disappointment and controlled outrage. Jennifer Bazzell, in contrast, makes a virtue of Bianca's simplicity--worldly yet guileless, and ultimately wistful.
Live Theatre Workshop has presented nothing but comedies for at least a year now, a few of them more light-headed than light-hearted, and will stay the course for another 12 months. Desdemona, while still essentially a comedy, detours into deeper issues and a darker worldview. It's a side trip well worth taking.