For centuries, Shakespeare’s “Othello” has told the story of the innocent Desdemona killed by Iago’s lies, but was Desdemona all that innocent?
The play “Desdemona: A Play about a Handkerchief,” written by Paula Vogel and directed by senior Avery Wigglesworth, is a retelling of Shakespeare’s classic tragedy, focusing on the women who Shakespeare left in the background.
“You don’t see a lot of shows with only female casts,” Wigglesworth said.
The play’s cast is small. Only three actresses make up the players: sophomore Sam Auch as Othello’s wife Desdemona, sophomore Missy Preston as her scullery maid Emilia and senior Kate LaRose as Bianca, Cassio’s prostitute.
It says a lot about the original play that most of its female characters can be defined by the men in their lives. Vogel’s play asks what would happen if audiences were to look further. Although a knowledge of the original play is helpful in understanding some of the underlying conflict in the play, Shakespeare’s tragedy is more of a jumping off point than a direct parallel.
According to Vogel, a closer look would reveal that although Desdemona is not carrying on an affair with Cassio like her husband suspects, she is sleeping with most of the other men in the city. Shakespeare’s innocent wife has even moonlighted as a prostitute for Bianca to liberate herself from her stale life and abusive husband.
Emilia struggles to stay faithful to Iago — despite the fact she hates him — for the promise of security that he brings. Bianca is a boisterous madam, bragging about her liberty from a “smug” (a husband) but even she is not as free as she appears.
“A lot of the play is about finding yourself,” Wigglesworth said.
She especially felt that the play was about women figuring out how to fill and not fill the roles society gives them.
Vogel’s original play was written in thick accents, but Wigglesworth made the choice to mostly ignore them to universalize the play.
The set itself is a hodgepodge of items from different periods. Mismatched chairs, rugs, lamps, pillows and even a play house give the set a feeling of timeless disarray.
“It’s sort of the attic of the world that these women have been shut up in,” Wigglesworth said.
But, in their attic, these women come alive. Although at times the script can be didactic, the players perform it with heart and sincerity which covers a good deal of fault.
Auch’s Desdemona, a poor little rich girl who is not satiated by the lush world around her, seamlessly makes the audience shift from frustration to sympathy and then back again. Preston’s Emilia can be harsh and conniving, but not without reason. LaRose’s Bianca is breezy and brash, but her vulnerability is always lurking beneath the surface.
In the play’s hour and fifteen minutes, the three women clash and commiserate in an effort to find out what it means to be a woman in a man’s world and how women can make a world of their own. The play offers no easy answers, but it provides enough for the audience to chew over after the actors take their final bows.
Note: This play contains nudity and sexually explicit content and is recommended for mature audiences.