What is it? Desdemona celebrates Shakespeare’s bawdy sense of humor shot through with 21st-century irony and intertextual wit. Writer Paula Vogel is a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright who gives Shakespeare’s female characters their due. She fleshes out a backstory for the unjustly vilified Desdemona, providing her with complexity and a lust for life that propels her relationship with Cassio’s lover, Bianca — a larger-than-life brothel madam (aren’t they all?) who shows Desdemona a trick or two.
Why see it? Think Sex and the Shakespearean City, with Othello’s Desdemona as Carrie Bradshaw. The show got a favorable review last August from City Paper critic William Bryan, who marveled at actress Kaitlin Winslow’s fake orgasm. With nine months to incubate the show, CofC’s Theater Department thesps should have a hit on their hands.
Who should go? If you think Shakespeare’s women got a raw deal, you’ll appreciate Vogel’s attempt to reset the balance. If you have a short attention span, you’ll like this too; the play is performed in 30 cinematic “takes.”
Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief • Piccolo Spoleto’s Stelle Di Domani Series • $12-15 • 1 hour 30 min. • May 23, 25, 29, 31, June 4, 6 at 8:30 p.m.; May 24, 26, 30, June 1, 5, 7 at 5:30 p.m. • Chapel Theatre, 172 Calhoun St. • (888) 374-2656
Maidens Gone Wild: An all-female show flips Shakespearean stereotypes
Of all of Shakespeare’s fictional women, Desdemona got a particularly tough break. Framed for an affair she never had, she was suffocated in a fit of jealous rage by her husband Othello.
However, the heroine of Paula Vogel’s Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief is, to quote Britney Spears, not that innocent. This female protagonist is no minor character or shrinking violet; she’s an intelligent, inquisitive woman who chats with her friends in the man-free zone of a laundry room as if she’s hanging out at an office watercooler. She gabs with Emilia, the wife of Othello’s rival Iago, and they’re joined by Bianca, the lover of Othello’s chief lieutenant Cassio.
Vogel, a Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, reinterprets the connections between these characters and puts a new spin on our perceptions of them. Instead of being chaste and innocent, Desdemona has sexual desires and acts on them at the local brothel run by Bianca.
Vogel takes an entertainingly ironic stab at Elizabethan stereotypes by empowering her women, while acknowledging that the only way for them to get ahead in a male-dominated society is to get hitched or start whoring.
But sex is only part of the equation in Desdemona. There’s also an interesting class distinction between the three characters, emphasizing the put-upon Emilia’s modest social status compared to Desdemona’s eminence.
Vogel uses accents to denote the trio’s different classes. Dealing with this proved to be one of director Wayne Wilson’s biggest headaches when he first produced the play last year.
“It was the scariest problem I had,” he says. “I believe that when you do Shakespeare you use your own accent.”
Thanks to his many years of experience in community theater, the CofC professor knew accents were hard to maintain, that they risked being too thick or misunderstood, or “sounded like a bunch of mishmash.”
Actresses Kaitlin Winslow, Kim Rogers, and Meredith Potter rehearsed their roles without accents — which was particularly difficult for Rogers. Her character, Bianca the brothel madam, was written as a Cockney. She had to translate all her dialogue into Americanese.
Eventually, dialects were used.
“The girls worked very hard on their accents,” Wilson says. “The roughest of the three was Meredith (Emilia) Potter’s Irish accent. She worked as hard as she could to clear up things and be understood. It works well because it gives you a difference in characters that’s not only physical, but you can hear it as well.”
Camaraderie has grown since they first appeared in the play last August. Now they’re reviving the show again for the Piccolo crowd.
“What amazes me is how powerful this play is,” Wilson says. “During the most recent rehearsals, Kaitlin said, ‘It doesn’t matter where I am in my life, this play has meaning.’ It touches these girls and they’ve become really close. They trust each other. Seeing them again is like visiting an old friend.”
With this cozy ensemble, it’s easy to believe that Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca are well acquainted. That’s fortunate since they’re required to do some naughty things to each other.
“The spanking scene is pretty awesome,” Wilson says. “The reason is because Kim and Kaitlin came up with a way of doing it, not me. I just told the two girls to be on a table and go for it.”
The spanking, a fake orgasm, and an improvised dildo, should add some extra spice to a play that’s mostly three people sitting around talking. But the lashings of humor and feminist commentary make Desdemona a memorably bawdy celebration of self-empowered women.