Tuesday, September 12, 2006

Review of HATG's production of "Desdemona: a Play about a Handkerchief" 9-03-06

In the back room of Othello’s palace, Paula Vogel sets Desdemona: a Play about a Handkerchief, taking Shakespeare’s women and turning them on their heads. In this comedy, the pure and loyal Desdemona becomes a manipulative and sexually adventurous army wife, Emelia becomes a disgruntled washerwoman longing for advancement, and Bianca becomes a courtesan with her heart set on domestic respectability. The play touches upon elements of class, social position, marriage, the role of women, and religion, all served up with clever humor in Vogel’s modern take.

While I don’t think much of this play, I do think it deserved better treatment than Bridget Dougherty’s direction provided. Desdemona is a playful and vulgar comedy with serious themes. However, Dougherty’s production focused only on these serious elements and caused the audience to laugh less often than the actors on the stage. Without the humor, the social and political commentary only seemed dull, and detracted from the production.

As Desdemona, Sara Gruber rarely realized the complexity of the role. Vogel took Desdemona’s purity and added aggression, pride, insecurity, vanity, a hatred of the commonplace, duplicity, and a massive indifference to risk. Gruber only hit some of these notes, and all of them in a haughty inflection that never changed. Her part also demanded someone who could move quickly back and forth between many different faces with the dexterity of a seasoned manipulator. Yet Gruber never convinces that the rest of the characters would respond to her machinations.

In this production, Jen Wolfe’s Emelia consists of only the serious elements of her part. She gave a very capable performance in her pious righteousness, her condemnation of Desdemona’s adultery, and frustration over her miserable marriage. However, the script serves up a slew of one-liners for the role, all but one of which she delivers humorlessly. She reads the line, “I long for the day when he makes me a lieutenant’s widow,” with sincere self-pity, missing an obvious opportunity for humor. But this leaves out so much, as she’s only funny once. When trying to determine if Desdemona, while working for Bianca, might have slept with Iago, they run through a number of possibilities. Finally, Desdemona remarks, “there was one man, who didn’t last very long,” to which Wolfe lowers her head and delivers one of the funniest lines of the play, saying only, “Aye.” Here Wolfe clearly demonstrates a capacity for the comedic timing her part demands, which Dougherty never took to this production’s advantage.

Rebekah Bonney, playing the courtesan Bianca, gave the finest performance of the night. She fired her lines with admirable spunk, describing sex as “Adam-and-Eve-ing it,” discussing the downside of her job as having “the cushiest night for laying, but the stingiest for paying,” and finally indulging Desdemona in a mock dominatrix scene that ends in a vicious catfight between the two. Her acting is solid throughout; when she realizes that Desdemona is using her, even the hurt she displayed felt genuine.

This portrayal enlivened the entire second half of the production, as Dougherty finally let Bonney give the audience a reason to enjoy themselves. Dougherty only gets right the tragic element of this story, aptly staging a devastating moment near the end when Desdemona finally retrieves the sought-after handkerchief. However, beyond Wolfe’s capable foil, and Bonney’s quirky excitement, this production suffers the loss of comedy throughout, and ultimately offers little to recommend.

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