In a dingy backroom of a distant palace, three women talk. And talk and talk and drink and talk and fight and talk and talk.
They come from radically different worlds: Desdemona is the wife of Othello, a Venetian general; Emilia is her handmaiden and wife to hated husband Iago; and Bianca owns a brothel, yet dreams of having her man and her cottage by the sea.
Desdemona. Iago. Othello. Maybe you recognize the underpinnings of Shakespeare's "Othello," the jumping-off point for Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel's "Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief." Here, we see the tragic love story, betrayal and top-drawer mind games through the women behind the major male players of Shakespeare's tragedy. The trajectory of the story hasn't changed. Desdemona (Leah Jenkins) has secretly married Othello. And like "Othello," a beloved handkerchief is lost, thanks to the manipulations of ensign Iago. Quickly, though, the storyline and the dire implications of the loss take a back seat to this drama about women's drive to determine their own fates.
It's a heady topic and one you'll likely intuit from the get-go, for better or worse. Vogel's characters are bound and liberated by power, sex and class, and every moment is designed, like an equation, to explicate that. The result: Although often funny, much of the play feels like a lesson - not in literature or history, but in personal politics. The narrative thread gets lost in the quick-cut scenes and some of the beautifully wrought (and devilishly dense) accents. Director Alysabeth Clements Mosley pulls it out in the end, though, and the story comes full circle in its final minutes.
Vogel's Desdemona is a sexpot who has bedded every man in Othello's army, except for Cassio, the one she'll be accused of sleeping with. She's the kind, Desdemona tells Emilia (Sarah S. Shaver), who's bound to die in bed. Her flagrant promiscuity flies in the face of her maid's strictly drawn lines of conduct: Emilia would never cheat on her husband, although she does pray fervently for his demise. Desdemona talks about sex. Emilia, who endlessly folds sheets and mends clothes, talks about religion. Both talk about marriage. Emilia is jealous of Desdemona's interest in Bianca (Kala Roquemore), who, by the way, loves Cassio. And the apparently independent Bianca is, in turn, seduced by Desdemona's interest, which includes filling in for the prostitute one day a week. Despite her position of power, Desdemona is the most helpless of the lot.
The experience of sex with so many faceless men allows Desdemona to "travel," she explains dreamily. Unfortunately, sex with her husband, the mercurial Othello, is not as fulfilling and as the play trods on, she plans to leave with a former lover.
It's a tangle of a plot, especially as it's parsed out on extremely short scenes. But director Clements Mosley, who uses every inch of this tiny stage, brings it together in the last scenes, when the audience and Desdemona's understanding of her fate dovetail in an ending that is silent, heavy and poignant.
Jenkins' Desdemona is a vague sort of girl. As if half listening to music in another room, she wanders from topic to topic in an over-the-top upper class English accent only an American could so thoroughly muster. Her Desdemona (she's played her before) talks about sex with relish, but isn't a bit sexy. Both Shaver and Roquemore were terrific, completely committed to their characters.
Clements Mosley's staging in this intimate space made this piece work, with the exception of the ridiculously choreographed fight scene toward the end of the evening. Shaver and Roquemore's costumes, by Christine Vitale, were wonderful, pageants of color and texture appropriate to their stations. Jenkins' white shift was as pale and distracted as her Desdemona was.
When: 7:30 p.m. Thursday-Saturday, 4 p.m. Sunday
Where: Springs Ensemble Theatre, 1903 E. Cache La Poudre St.
Tickets: $15, $10 student rush tickets available five minutes before the show; 357-3080, springsensembletheatre.org.
Running time: About 80 minutes, with no intermission