Desdemona is one of Shakespeare's most boring female leads. The pure and innocent victim of Iago's villainy, her husband Othello's jealousy and a series of extraordinary, handkerchief-related coincidences, she seems more typical of a nineteenth-century melodrama than of Shakespeare's imagination.
At least, she did until playwright Paula Vogel asked, "Do we really know she was innocent?"
In Desdemona: A Play about a Handkerchief, which just opened at the Boxcar Theatre, Paula Vogel imagines what would happen if Desdemona were guilty--if not of the specific infidelity Othello suspects her of, then of every other infidelity available on the island of Cyprus.
But the focus of the production, directed by Peter Matthews, is not so much a counterfactual Othello as it is an exploration of the world of the play's women. For Desdemona (Karina Wolfe), Emilia (Adrienne Krug), her laundress, and Bianca (Theresa Miller), her new b.f.f. and the town whore, men don't matter much, except when they physically and sexually abuse. Even husbands are more enemies than allies.
Yet, as Emilia says, "there's no such thing as friendship between women," and indeed Desdemona's favorite way to overcome her poor-little-rich-girl boredom is to play favorites with the two commoners.
But early on it's pretty obvious from the lack of male characters that this play will chronicle the fairer sex's attempts to find cross-class support amongst itself, in an effort to cope with an inexorable truth -- All women have to choose between two kinds of prostitution: actual whoredom, and marriage.
That's not an original theatrical assertion: George Bernard Shaw posed it a century ago with plays like Mrs. Warren's Profession. In Vogel's rendering, the debate between the two options packs less heat, not just because it waxes pedantic but because the actual plot of Othello, which she weaves in, ostensibly to drive the story onward, here feels tacked on. What Vogel seems to really want to do is show that women, even the languidly affluent, are oppressed--a point that doesn't take a whole play to make.
Still, the show has its delectations, including Jenn Scheller's set design. Walking into the theater is like crawling into a childhood fort: every surface of the black box theater is covered in white linens. They festoon the ceiling, enshroud the pillars, and protrude from the walls like flying buttresses. With them, the theater becomes an intimate, cloistered space--one that makes the women's sphere of Emilia's laundry room look like a magical world.
Vogel's poetic ear for language also makes for juicy lines, like a confusion of the words "vowels" and "bowels," and some foolproof scenes: There's not only the requisite catfight, complete with biting and hair pulling, but also an exchange in which Bianca introduces Desdemona to S&M.
But the more static scenes require actresses of more mettle to keep things interesting. Wolfe makes for a perfect Desdemona, a bully, straight out of Mean Girls, who makes you alternately squirm and sympathize. But Miller exudes too much sweetness for Bianca's boorish language to sound convincing, while Krug is so focused on her crude words and Irish accent that she misses crucial moments of comic timing.
Joan Scout's lights and Peter Matthew's sound design only further frustrate our engagement with the play. The cues come out of nowhere, calling unnecessary attention to themselves. It's not clear whether the laughing and humming sound effects are supposed to be coming from the characters onstage, and the lights don't even clarify whether all the actors onstage are supposed to be in the same room.
Feminist critics often lament the "angel-whore" dichotomy into which female characters are forced. Vogel doesn't do much more than move Desdemona from one side to the other.
It troubles me to have to say a feminist reappropriation of a Shakespeare text feels tedious, especially since so much of theater and film refuses to take on women's stories right now. But a play that exists only to make didactic statements like that there are "worlds married women never get to see," is not much more relevant than a melodrama with a mustache-twirling villain and a heroine tied to the railroad tracks.
Desdemona: A Play about a Handkerchief continues through November 5 at the Boxcar Theatre in San Francisco. Tickets are $15 - $35.