Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief
Presented by the College of Charleston
Aug. 23-25, 8 p.m.
Sun., Aug. 26, 3 p.m.
$15, $10 students/seniors
Chapel Theatre, 172 Calhoun St.
Slap her, spank her and put her to bed. What a whore is our Kaitlin, er, Desdemona!
The unjustly accused innocent in Shakespeare’s Othello becomes quite a different Desdemona in Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel’s play Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief. From substituting at the local brothel, learning the pleasures of a little S&M, or discovering the joys of toys, Othello’s wife and her pals are doing things behind the scenes that Shakespeare never could have imagined. That’s the purpose of Vogel’s work: a frank and feminist comment on the subjugation of women, not only in the period of Othello’s story, but in the plays of that time.
Shakespeare’s works, like those of many of his contemporaries, use women as props and plot kindling, seldom as a strong figure that could have stood without a man’s support. Vogel rewrites history, to a degree, letting us get a glimpse behind the curtain of the three main women from Othello. In a back room full of laundry to wash, potatoes to peel, and undergarments to mend we find a woman’s sanctuary, a place where men would never go. With the freedom such a setting provides, Desdemona transforms from the naïve heroine to the wanton strumpet. Emilia, her maid and companion, is now a devout Catholic and honest wife. Bianca, the mistress of Cassio, is the proprietor of the Cyprus whorehouse where, we learn, our leading lady likes to substitute on Tuesday nights at sixpence a john.
The College of Charleston theatre department begins their new season with Vogel’s many-layered play. The piece speaks to the nature of a woman’s place in a man’s world, the way that caste and class defined those roles, and the risks these women will take to move beyond, or even escape from, their station in life. Desdemona yearns to be a “free” woman, free from marriage and the limits society places upon her. Emilia, often considered complicit in Iago’s scheme in Othello, comes across here as a dissatisfied wife whose loyalty to her husband results in the tragedy that follows. Bianca, free and able to do as she pleases from the low station of Madame of the brothel, yearns for the very things the Lady of the house and her maid so desperately want to escape.
Kaitlin Winslow gives a fine performance in the title role, and she truly shines at certain moments. She can belch better than most submariners, seems extra eager when using a phallic-shaped wolf-pick to quiz her maid on the size of her husband’s manhood, and manages to be both an aloof lady and tavern hussy by measure. But during Thursday night’s “talkback” session, no one asked the most provocative question: Just how did she and Kim Rogers, portraying the lusty Bianca, get so good at their spanking session? The orgasm Kaitlin fakes as she writhes on the tabletop would do justice to Meg Ryan’s big scene from Sleepless in Seattle. Both women must have taken lessons or practiced overtime to make this one moment work. Kim wields her leather strap with perfect timing as she teaches her pupil how to take a spanking. Almost as much fun to watch is the aloof, holier-than-thou reactions of Meredith Potter as the maid Emilia, or “Mealy” as she is called, as she learns more and more of her Lady’s debaucheries.
There are some minor problems with the performance. With hard work, this talented cast and crew can correct them. Save for a few scenes the ensemble has not yet jelled, making the show feel as one audience member said, “like three monologues taking place on the same stage.” The accents, an integral part of the play since Vogel uses them to help define the caste of the women, are not always as stable as they need to be. The show is a funny one, but the performers need to learn that when they get a laugh they need to pause and let it happen and not plow on through it in an effort to finish their lines.
Director Wayne Wilson has captured almost the full potential of this ribald script and his all-women cast have no problem shaking off the shackles that bind them and calling into question once again their designation as “the weaker sex.”
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