Desdemona: A Play About A Handkerchief By Paula Vogel
A production of the Three Sisters Theatre Company
Director: Bronwyn Steinberg
What a waste of talent! Robin Guy is a fine performer. Élise Gauthier and Gabrielle Lalonde move well. But in Paula Vogel’s dated and unpleasant view of feminism, awkwardly directed by Bronwyn Steinberg, the three are simply part of a theatrical mish-mash punctuated by repetitive stylized movement that makes 90 minutes seem twice as long.
The purpose of Desdemona: A Play about a Handkerchief is apparently that control comes to women only through their husbands and independence only through prostitution. The three different accents used by the three characters are intended to define class and the way individuals are imprisoned by their origins. Presumably, the beige laundry that forms the bland set and much of the stage business is meant to underline the household duties assigned to women.
Okay, got it. Now what? This non-innocent Desdemona has slept with every man except Cassio (the focus of her husband Othello’s jealous rage in the Shakespearean classic) and has soothed her poor-little-rich-girl boredom by moonlighting as a prostitute for brothel owner Bianca. Meanwhile, her confidante/servant Emilia (unhappy wife of Iago, the villain of Othello) expresses her horror at marital infidelity even though she despises her husband, while Desdemona amuses herself with a phallic symbol and by being cruel to her underling.
In terms of performance, Guy delivers a rounded characterization and consistent Irish accent in a believable portrayal of Emilia. Élise Gauthier is at her best during the ugly and repetitive filler movement portions. While she has a clear idea of the bawdy Desdemona’s character, she does not always project total ease in her stiff portrayal. Meanwhile, because Gabrielle Lalonde is directed into presenting a Cockney accent so strong and spoken in such a garbled fashion that her words are frequently unintelligible, the quality of her performance is difficult to assess.
The visual aspects do little to alleviate the boredom engendered by script, direction and stylized movements. Perhaps set/costume/props designer Nancy Anne Perrin was trying to suggest universality by indiscriminate mixing of time frames. Perhaps, it was happenstance. Wax paper, used to wrap the machine-sliced sandwich that looked as though it had been picked up at the local deli (2016) was first used in the 19th century. (In 1851, beeswax was used to coat parchment.) The belts worn by two of the characters in this production are reminiscent of those sported by fashionable teenagers in the 1950s and 60s. The short tunics, possibly intended to suggest the garb of pages in the 11th and 12th centuries, are not particularly flattering to the actors during their more awkward contortions. And, even the less-than-charming strawberry design on the handkerchief that is a key in the plot (if that is not too strong a word for Vogel’s script) makes it looks more like a napkin than the delicate lace trifle that would have been more appropriate.
Desdemona: A Play about a Handkerchief continues at the Gladstone to September 24.
Set, costumes and props: Nancy Anne Perrin
Lighting: David Magladry
Sound: Robin Guy
Fight coordinator: Zach Counsil