Paula Vogel’s "Desdemona: a Play about a Handkerchief" is at the Rose Firebay of the John Waldron Arts Center in a BAAC/Detour production directed by Mike Price. It’s a bawdy provocative play from the 70s that explores the world of women in a world run by men. Women’s status, empowerment, class conflict and women vis a vis women are all part of this backstage story of the trio of women from Shakespeare’s tragedy "Othello." There’s Othello’s wife Desdemona, Amanda Scherle, her servant and the wife of Iago Emilia, Marcia Dangerfield, and Bianca, who’s independent but hopeful about marriage with Cassio, Danielle Bruce.
Paula Vogel’s play begins with Emilia picking up the handkerchief that Othello gave Desdemona as a love token. For an audience familiar with the deadly potency of this token in Shakespeare’s play, watching Desdemona frantically search for the handkerchief while it is safely ensconced in Emilia’s bosom is painful. The servant has a long and continuing catalog of wrongs by her mistress. Though they are both women beholding to their men, a class gap divides them. Desdemona capriciously orders Emilia about, demeans her, continually holds out the empty promise of a rise in status and even corrects her pronunciation. Emilia clearly enjoys participating in Desdemona’s desperate search. Paula Vogel’s Emilia is a very interesting character. It’s to Vogel’s credit that Emilia seems a logical extension and expansion of Shakespeare’s character. In the BAAC/Detour production she is richly realized by Marcia Dangerfield.
The issue of class appears again with the arrival of Danielle Bruce as Bianca. In Paula Vogel’s "Desdemona…," Bianca is an independent whore. Her independence fascinates Desdemona, and Emilia feels totally demeaned when she is asked to admit and even serve this woman. Vogel gives Bianca a juicy part and Danielle Bruce makes an outrageous success of this energetic wench. There really isn’t enough ground in Shakepeare’s "Othello" to base the creation of this character upon, but I accepted her energy and even joy with gratitude.
The biggest change in Vogel’s "…play about a Handkerchief" from its base in "Othello" is in the character of Desdemona herself. She’s far from the pure nonentity of Shakespeare. Desdemona’s always been a headstrong girl much given to rapidly changing enthusiasms. Amanda Scherle plays her as a flighty and girlish, totally unintrospective, a sort of grown up a spoiled brat. We learn that as a girl she was fascinated with religion thought she might become a nun, was wild about horses and riding, sought the exotic in her marriage to a Moor and throughout her life has been a sexual experimenter. Desdemona’s even spent a professional night in Bianca’s brothel. Although she’s innocent of the imagined affair with Cassio that leads to her death in Shakespeare’s play, one of her anonymous customers may have been Iago.
The BAAC/Detour production offers three skilled actors in deeply interesting and unsettling parts. The period costumes by Alexandra Morphet, especially Bianca’s, are fascinating. Shakespeare’s Othello, my reading of it and seeing it as a play and as an opera, formed the basis for my view of Paula Vogel’s play. It will be interesting to see how I perceive these three characters the next time I see them back in Shakespeare.
Paula Vogel’s "Desdemona:…" plays Friday and Saturday nights at eight and Sundays at two through March sixth.