BWW Reviews: The Real Housewives of Cyprus in SET's DESDEMONA
I tend to prefer Shakespeare's comic heroines to his tragic ones. Beatrice, Katherine, and Viola always seemed more lively, active, and interesting, while Juliet, Ophelia, and Desdemona mostly made pretty speeches while waiting for fate to buffet them towards their inevitable messy ends.
The best thing about Paula Vogel's Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief is that it gives Desdemona-and Othello's two other female roles, Emilia and Bianca-a bit of the life and bawdiness enjoyed by their comedic cousins. Yes, bawdiness: far from the virtuous innocent depicted in Shakespeare, Vogel's Desdemona (Leah Jenkins) has shared her favors with nearly every man of her acquaintance (ironically, Cassio is the only man in her husband's regiment she hasn't slept with) and even sneaks away to sub for Bianca (Kala Roquemore) at the local brothel. In between, she teases pious Emilia (Sarah S. Shaver) with her exploits. She's spoiled, demanding, and desperate for anything to liven up her stifling existence. In other words, she's human.
Through their frank discussions and surprising revelations, the three women reveal that they are, in their separate ways, trapped: by marriage, by social expectation, but mostly by the men who only see them as pretty ornaments or warm bodies when they bother to think about them at all. No wonder Desdemona longs for escape anywhere (and with anyone) she can find it, and Emilia quietly prays for the day when she can be an independent widow. They've been given no other outlets.
Jenkins, who also played Desdemona for director Alysabeth Clements Mosley's production of Othello with Star Bar Players, sinks her teeth into the character's posh accent and shameless behavior. Shaver and Roquemore have a little more difficulty wrapping their tongues around the dialects, and it takes a few moments after the first entrance of each to attune the ear to their dialogue. But the trio ultimately carry their characters through this adjustment phase and Vogel's occasionally awkward scene shifts to bring out the humanity and tragedy of their characters.
For all the sly humor and casual sexuality in the play (faint hearts be warned: there is spanking, and very brief nudity), this is still a story of deception and betrayal-remember, Emilia is the one who filches the handkerchief that ends up sealing the doom of both her mistress and herself. And while the transition between the two moods is a little clunky (as is the fight sequence that produces it), Vogel's play effectively confronts our preconceived notions of the character. After all, does being less innocent make Desdemona less than a victim? Vogel challenges the idea that a woman's worth is tied to her sexuality (or more accurately, lack thereof)-an idea that, sadly, is still as prevalent in some cultures today as it was in Shakespeare's time.
DESDEMONA: A PLAY ABOUT A HANDKERCHIEF runs at Springs Ensemble Theatre now through February 23rd, Thrusdays through Saturdays at 7:30pm and Sundays at 4pm. For tickets, call 719-357-3080 or visit springsensembletheatre.org.