Past productions of Paula Vogel’s Desdemona have been compared to another contemporary Shakespeare spin-off, Tom Stoppard’s Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead. It’s easy to see why. Both take familiar characters from Elizabethan classics, play up the humorous aspects, and delight in contrasting patterns of speech. But while Stoppard’s hit uses excerpts from Hamlet, Vogel’s accessible three woman show steers clear of free verse and there’s not a “forsooth” to be heard.
Although Desdemona doesn’t have the complexity of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern it is a lot of fun, for the actors as well as the audience. The interplay between the three actresses is what really makes this play worth seeing.
Vogel’s liberating story is based on the conceit that Desdemona, tragic heroine of Othello, isn’t as chaste and unwitting as she seems in the source text. In a rustic laundry room of a Cypriot palace, she teases her maid Emilia with tales of affairs and prostitution and marvels at a phallic black hoof pick. Emilia doesn’t approve; despite her lower status, the pious peon has higher morals than her mistress and has stayed true to her husband Iago for 14 years. To keep him happy she’s stolen Desdemona’s handkerchief, leading Othello to suspect that his wife is knocking boots with Lieutenant Cassio.
Desdemona’s friend Bianca wants to tie the knot with Cassio in more ways than one. She runs the local brothel and she also has saucy tales to tell, including one about an S&M session gone wrong. As Bianca shows Desdemona how to receive a good spanking on the kitchen table, Emilia struggles to ignore their antics.
There are gentler, more introspective moments amidst the bawdiness. In their world, the only way for Desdemona and Emilia to improve their lot is to get married; they yearn for escape from the patriarchal system. Free spirit Bianca wants to settle down. No one stays happy, especially when it becomes clear that Othello’s jealousy will not fade and could prove fatal for his wife and her servant.
This College of Charleston production directed by Wayne Wilson has a great set designed by Geoff Maas, with crumbling cutaway walls and a welcome attention to detail. Laura Rogers’ costumes help delineate the different backgrounds of the women. Kaitlin Winslow plays Desdemona as a haughty, naughty upper crust English lady. As the jolly Bianca, Kim Rogers bounds around the stage and brightens the show with her presence. Meredith Potter provides the most realistic reactions of the three.
Unfortunately the actresses are saddled with accents that take a while to get used to. Winslow’s aristocratic Brit is too mannered and stagy to be authentic, and Potter’s Irish dialect is sometimes impenetrable. The accents improve as the show goes on, with Bianca’s cockney voice sounding the most natural. Vogel specifies the dialects in her text to make sure the audience knows that her characters have had different upbringings, but that’s apparent in what they say as well as how they say it. Gentler vernacular would help make those characters more believable.
Otherwise, this is a fast-moving play with lots of comedy, strong acting, and a thing or two to say about the challenges women face, whatever century they live in.
Desdemona: A Play about a Handkerchief • Piccolo’s Stelle Di Domani Series • $12-15 • 1 hour 20 min. • May 25, 29, 31, June 4, 6 at 8.30 p.m.; May 26, 30, June 1, 5, 7 at 5.30 p.m. • Chapel Theatre, 172 Calhoun St. • (888) 374-2656