“If you’ve never seen the world then how would you know?” the titular character says to Emilia in Desdemona: A Play About A Handkerchief, at Burbage Theatre Company. “Women are clad in purdah, we decent, respectable matrons, from the cradle to the altar to the shroud … bridled with linen, blinded with lace …. These very walls are purdah.” As timely and true as ever, Paula Vogel’s play tells the story of Shakespeare’s tragic tale of race-hatred and manipulation, itself a daring exploration of bias and stereotypes, from the perspective of the ironically stereotypically written women, who are only as complex as props in Shakespeare’s text. And, arguably, less integral to the plot.
The prologue is the famous Act 5, Scene 2 from the Bard’s Othello. Desdemona, supplicant to her man even in her own murder, succumbs to his jealous tantrum and to his hands around her neck. Following this well-known scene (forgive any spoilers, but come on, if you have not read Othello, you have bigger problems here than my giving away Shakespeare), we begin the play, which recounts the hours spent in Desdemona’s chambers leading up to her violent demise. Three women, Emilia, Bianca and Desdemona herself, spend the next 90 minutes revealing how they sought and fought small victories in the daily battle to find identity outside of the unattainable perfection demanded by the men who keep them.
Rachael Perry struts the difficult role of Bianca with agility. Written in an exaggerated cockney, Perry plays the business-savvy, brothel-madame with a delightful vulgarity, walking and sitting as if she just dismounted a horse. Yet, when the role turns a corner, Perry evokes nuanced reactions from her audience as well as she draws shock.
Christin Goff delivers a sophisticated and subtly masterful performance as Emilia. She is bitter and weathered and cynical and tethered to her dissatisfaction of her marriage by the rosary beads tucked into her belt. She almost never stops moving as she is continually neatening and tidying and mending and fretfully judging her way through every scene.
Desdemona is played by inimitably fire-eyed Valerie Westgate. Cunning and mischievous, Westgate leads us through the story of a girl of means, grown up to be a woman of beauty and intellect, with a cupidity for human experience, yet stunted by the limits of her patriarchal cage. Ms. Westgate is magnetic as she crafts the part, drawing the audience into the realization of Desdemona’s deeply flawed sense of morality which, unlike Shakespeare’s version, is so preciously real and valuably human.
Trevor Elliot’s scenic design has the feel of a postmodern servants’ quarters. It is carefully scattered with what is needed to keep the actors busy without distracting from the dialogue. As a backdrop are draped sheets, like oversized wash hung out to dry, and projected on these are nanny-cam shots of the action on stage, live, as if big brother is watching. And, with poetic irony, like you are watching Big Brother. Sharon Carpentier’s costumes are, like the set and like the actors, flattering, functional and seemingly from all times and places.
Desdemona: A Play About A Handkerchief, is a well-placed story that could not be more timely. As our nation is faced with the first woman to ever win the nomination of a major political party for the office of President, the role of the western woman in all facets of our culture is scrutinized and tested against the brutality of history. It reflects back at us all biases — race, socio-economic status, age, language — and they find their way to the stage in this play. Director Allison Crews found an excellent balance of humor and gravity in her staging of Vogel’s play. This is the kind of scrappy theater that challenges the notion that good theater needs anything more than a solid play, the dedication of its artists, and a place for people to sit for 90 minutes. My hat is off to Jeff Church, BTC’s founding artistic director, for his obsession with making theater work.
Go see this play.
Desdemona: A Play About A Handkerchief runs Friday and Saturday evenings from September 16 through October 15 at Burbage Theatre Company located at Aurora, 276 Westminster Street, Providence. Friday curtain goes up at 7pm and Saturday curtain is at 6pm.