BSF’s ‘Desdemona’: Naughty Girls Need Love, Too
There is something inherently both disturbing and highly erotic about watching a sexually charged performance in a space that doubles as a church. Hard as it is to believe, this has actually now happened to me three times – once at a very bizarre rendition of Jesus Christ Superstar, this past summer at the off-Broadway incarnation of Spring Awakening, and now at Desdemona, A Play About a Handkerchief, which opened at Baltimore Shakespeare Festival’s St. Mary’s performance space in Hampden. Here, it is much more overt, as the audience sits in pews while the stage is on the altar.
The play, by Pulitzer Prize-winner />Paula Vogel/>, is one of those that dramatizes what is going on behind the scenes of another famous work. Think Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead or more popularly, Wicked, although here, we have the Untold story of the Bitches of Cyprus, aka the unseen scenes of Othello. As such, it behooves you to come with a certain amount of understanding of that play. The BSF has been very helpful in that regard, providing a synopsis of Othello that leans particularly toward what the ladies of the tragedy have to do with the plot, thus helping us understand why these three characters are important enough to warrant a play of their own. Well, that may be debatable, but Vogel has given us a brisk, witty and mostly intelligent play whether we think they are worth it or not.
Gentlemen, apparently the joke has been on us all along. In Vogel-land, women alone are much like men alone. They swear, spit at each other, pleasure themselves at inappropriate times, compare penis size and talk endlessly about the prowess (or lack of) of their lovers. And I thought slumber parties and group trips to the bathroom were to gossip! Oops! Here, we have Emilia, Iago’s wife, and Desdemona’s hand maiden, Bianca, a prostitute, girlfriend to Desdemona’s alleged lover, and Desdemona’s best-friend, and of course, Desdemona herself, the doomed heroine, soon to be smothered because her husband is in a jealous rage over a non-existent affair and that damnable handkerchief! In a way, this plot summary reduces Othello to a soap opera (and let’s face it, many a Shakespearean plot would work on General Hospital), and one of the revelations made about how Desdemona spends her Tuesday nights in Cyprus sounds like it belongs on Desperate Housewives. Come to think of it, Desdemona is a hybrid of Shakespeare in Love and Desperate Housewives. And like both of those properties, Desdemona will likely have its critical praise and detractors both.
Beth Hylton, in the smallest of the three roles, does her bawdy best to make an impression of a prostitute outwardly at peace with her chosen lot in life. But her steamroller entrance and overly loud retelling of workplace stories (like men at frat party) betray her – she gives just enough softness to Bianca to let us know that the volume and self-deprecation of her being is really a hard veneer, covering a wounded and hurting woman. I will admit that crack in the paint was hard to see, and maybe I was looking for it, but Hylton’s characterization is so out there, and at times very difficult to understand. Many times, she talks at a roadrunner pace, slurring words together with a spotty accent. She comes across more like Hylton herself does not believe in Bianca, which really informs her performance.
Molly Moores is the real find of this production, giving a well-rounded, full performance that so easily could have been a one-noter. Instead of just playing the stock Shakespearean underling/confidante, Vogel’s Emilia is that and much more – a woman with morals and the ability to be a true friend and a steady, if unhappy, wife. Moores fully understands this, it seems, as her performance is a series of layers carefully added to enhance both character and plot. Her accent, while thick as Irish stew, is crystal clear, and her timing is impeccable, landing each joke with finesse. (Would that the audience have been more attuned to the plot of Othello, as they barely giggled at some great irony!)
As the title character, Tara Garwood, reminds me of a cross between />Julia Roberts/>, Gwyneth Paltrow and Goldie Hawn (Oscar winners, all), which in many ways makes her Desdemona more easily approachable for the audience. What a great role for a young woman, too. She gets to do it all, high comedy, deep pathos, physical comedy, and even a fake orgasm! Cleverly, Garwood keeps us guessing – is she carefree? Is she a foolish little girl? Is she a discontented wife? Or is she smarter than we think she is? It is that unknowing that really makes this play interesting, because the extreme emotion and sexuality of the script loses its vulgarity and shock value long before the final scene. All three actresses are to be commended for keeping their performances just murky enough to keep us interested. But none of them have made particularly likeable characters either, and because of that, ultimately, the ending, which, should be sad if not unsettling, is neither in this production.
It is true that many of the audience lost the irony of the jokes, and clearly did not get the irony of the lines about Othello secretly smelling Desdemona’s bed sheets (which he is about to smother her with), or the real sadness that none of these smart women will be able to outsmart their men as they so resolutely believe at the end. We know all three are headed for tragedy, and they are scared but unaware that their own plan will fail.That realization should have bonded audience and cast, and it really didn’t. The direction of the piece, by Raine Bode, is mostly at fault here. Many times, I found myself alternately in awe and angered by her directorial choices. It seems Ms. Bode wants to show us every trick in her considerable bag of directorial gimmicks. Instead, she might have been better served by letting the script speak for itself.Vogel’s script is rich enough without adding to it.
The script, as is, is appropriately Shakespearean in language, melodramatic plot twists and heightened theatricality. And Ms. Bode has created a highly theatrical staging to match, perhaps too much so.Where she is awesome, she is awesome – the setting (designed by Kimberley Lynne) sheets and undergarments hung to dry from floor to top of the cathedral ceilings (literally) and the stage area, designed to look both like a scullery room and a boxing ring are artistic, meaningful and theatrically symbolic without smacking us in the head with it. Similarly, the lighting (designed by Alexandra Pappas), which is physically moved by stagehands, creates thrilling shadows, and gives much needed dramatic focus to scenes. Any director who surrounds herself with such talented designers and even choreographs scene changes in sharp theatricality clearly knows what she is doing.
And so it baffles me why she (and many, many other directors) couldn’t have stopped there with it.Instead, she starts the evening by having a ridiculously dressed stage manager (forgive me whoever you are) strut down the house aisle, barking orders into her headset, “meaningfully” waving about the titular handkerchief, then yelling for the actors to start. And then Bode continues with this by having every scene change happen with what sounds like a record needle at the end of the record on an old Victrola, then the stage manager menacingly (?) telling us what light and sound cue we are on. With 25 intermissionless scenes, you can imagine this device wears thin. And boy does it, because just when you get used to ignoring it, Bode throws in a scene change with no noise or one with the noise but no voice. Then, of course, one becomes annoyed with oneself because now, instead of listening to the actors, one is thinking, “hmmm, I wonder why the director chose no sound here…” You see, when an “artiste” of Ms. Bode’s caliber (and she is clearly talented) you can’t help but know there is some huge, yet totally obscure with one viewing, meaning behind every manipulating step she takes. All of my sometimes heavy-handed, self-indulgent griping, like all of her sometimes heavy-handed, self-indulgent choices, can be boiled down to one succinct point: when the direction and concept of the play detracts from the meaning and enjoyment of that play, the direction is not good.
Still, the cleverness of the plot, the richness of the acting, and the technical theatrics of this production makes it one to see. The Baltimore Shakespeare Festival has not disappointed. Nowhere else are us guys going to get to see first hand what our wives and girlfriends talk about when we aren’t around. And it serves as a cautionary tale to us all – keep your spouses, partners, and/or significant others happy because you never know what they are doing behind your back!
PHOTO: TOP: (L to R) Beth Hylton, the Handkerchief, Tara Garwood and BOTTOM: Molly Moores and Beth Hylton.Photos courtesy of the Baltimore Shakespeare Festival.
From This Author James Howard