There are at least two reactions to Desdemona: She’s an annoying servant to her husband Othello, who keeps her waiting for days near their marriage bed, with little service to herself and person; or she’s the chrysalis of love’s dedication at all costs to the man she loves. Somewhere in the middle is the real wife of Othello, and with its new production of Desdemona, a Play About a Handkerchief, Post5 Theatre follows its recent staging of Shakespeare’s tragedy with Paula Vogel’s exploration of Desdemona’s character.
Vogel’s 1987 psychoanalytical voyage was ahead of its time. The America of the 1980s suffered a feminist backlash from which we are still recovering. We still hide under our bedsheets; state by state we step one foot forward and one step back in the political gender arena. Some of us can marry whom we wish. Others can’t use a public bathroom. The uncomfortable distinction of rights versus character continues on its unreasonable path. Vogel’s women’s-perspective version of the play, directed for Post5 by Mary McDonald-Lewis, puts sex-positive inquiry into the most extreme corners, with an acute understanding of Desdemona and the scholarship that unpacks her handkerchief. Out of the adversity and sacrifice of this late-twentieth-century feminism we have emerged with an understanding that there is no black and white. Each of us is who we are, by our own terms; and one day, we hope, that will be the golden rule.
Shakespeare’s Desdemona moves back and forth with “yes, my lord and yes my lord.” Vogel’s Desdemona is a dread of boredom who seeks out any stimulus and promise. Minutes, hours, days, weeks go by just waiting. The two Desdemonas meet on even ground because they do not understand the power of sex, within themselves or in relation to others. It is this physical disassociation that undoes the world strand by strand, minute by minute. Vogel isn’t gimmicky. It’s all in the image and metaphor. Desdemona in Shakespeare is a mirror to the Moor. In Vogel she’s a mirror on Othello and herself. Vogel is also looking deep into the virgin/whore complex, and declaring that it’s not enough to master what are seemingly two different attitudes; one must also take out the gloves and dig deeper into an authentic identification. There is a freedom in exploring, but being listless in a time of confirmation gives a bare-boned result: where Iago’s deception kills Desdemona off in Othello, in Vogel’s play it is her own confusion that turns a marriage bed into a deathbed.
Elizabeth Parker is hot off the heels of Paul Angelo’s direction of Blasted at Defunkt Theatre, where she ably played a similar starving woman, but at the world’s end; an ingenue who pays a price for not seeing herself. Her Desdemona in A Play About a Handkerchief cackles, step-by-step takes a mean currency of every relationship, gets hounded by intoxication, and gives a pink slip to the rough trade of which she has no understanding. Rusty Tennant’s set is a boudoir of satin and pillows, a stultifying and chilling padded visual of existential dread. Desdemona’s hit the wall of boredom, and we feel her emptiness. Her eroticism is a vacant plagued search for feeling anything, or something, and a death-toll of what will come. There will be no miracle of resurrection once she’s suffocated, and we are conscious throughout the play of her destiny.
Lucy Paschall is Desdemona’s faithful Irish-accented servant, Emilia, standing in for society’s rules. She is the duplicitous, shame-based hall monitor of culture, calling on the telephone for the slightest transgression while repressing her own lies. She’s given Iago, her husband, the strawberry-embroidered handkerchief, the Shakespeare linen stand-in for a letter, that will undo all of their lives, while scrubbing away violently and uselessly at Desdemona’s false virgin-stained bedsheets. Here Vogel tears apart the Elizabethan image: the virgin queen Elizabeth, who becomes a stand-in for the virgin mother Mary, a lye-faced monarch whose surface peels to a pained reality of destroyed red skin. The powdered ivory face of state cakes and wears thin behind the needs of the citizens. In the arena of social justice, Vogel makes the handkerchief a stand-in for false political promises, not the tug-of-war between husband and wife over psychological chastity.
Bianca, Cassio’s wife, played by Shannon Mastel, blows through Desdemona’s life as quick as the wind. Desdemona and all the other women in the play have no closeness, no real intimacy. They pretend that it exists, because they need to, not just for the sake of being alive, but also to further their futures. Not one woman in the play lives in the present: they are shackled by the past and obsessed with the future. Bianca is the counter-foil to Emilia, a prostitute in the company of a nun, but they are saddled together by pretending so well as to deceive themselves that honesty can be sacrificed for a brighter future. All of the women get caught in the crosshairs: they take traditional routes to freedom, but none of them will be free, because their freedom is defined by men.
The Marquis de Sade lit an intellectual and political fire by hiding the scrolls of his fantasies in the wrought-iron bed frame of his Bastille room. When the texts were found they turned out to be as dry as the parchment they were writ upon: the spirit of his conquests made the real mark. Such a thing is not unexpected or unknown in the pages of books: sometimes the greater idea destroys the small and droll-mindedness of its parts. A boring romp into human desire can become a catalogue of lists, like a public school history class, and so this Desdemona’s induction by Bianca into the Sade world is equally unmoving and serves to underline how a pause within the self can be a Novocaine that magnifies desperation.
There’s a bittersweetness to being human: the dreams in our heads and the reality of our bodies make a fight between love and war. Vogel’s play looks into the shadows and Post5’s production wrestles with our duality and how ignorance bears out.
Post5’s Desdemona, a Play About a Handkerchief continues through May 28. Ticket and schedule information here.