A play about a handkerchief

Showing now at the University of Pittsburgh, Paula Vogel’s Desdemona: A Play About A Handkerchief gives a female perspective on Shakespeare’s Othello. In the original story, Iago is upset that Othello promoted Cassio above him in the army. To seek revenge, Iago steals a handkerchief belonging to Desdemona, Othello’s wife, eventually planting it in the hands of Cassio — convincing Othello that Cassio has taken Desdemona as his lover. Emilia, Iago’s wife, tries to tell Othello the truth, but before she can get to him, Othello becomes overcome with jealousy and murders Desdemona. Iago then murders Emilia for attempting to foil his plan and Othello kills himself in shame. At the end of the play, Iago is taken away, presumably to be executed.

Vogel’s Desdemona, a three-actor play, is a feminist revision of this story. Focusing on the interactions between Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca (Cassio’s lover), Vogel creates a revision of the story in which even new personalities and decisions still end the women’s lives in tragedy. Trapped within a Shakespearian world, the women cannot sustain friendships with each other or be what men expect them to be. Vogel focuses on the small hopes each woman carries, as they struggle to survive in what can only end in tragedy.

In Desdemona, the characters’ personalities are introverted. Desdemona, unhappy and stuck in her marriage with Othello, becomes a whore at night, sneaking out to experience the world through the “seeds” of many men. Emilia is a moral, faithful wife to Iago; although true to her marriage and the Catholic Church, she waits for the day her husband will die to use their savings. Bianca is a prostitute, the “new woman” Desdemona desperately wishes to become, but only wishes to be married to Cassio and bear his children.

The principal cast of the production gave a good performance. Bonnie Doyle played Desdemona for her first performance at the University of Pittsburgh. Doyle skillfully used her body and voice to create a playful and callow Desdemona. She was able to project lines befitting of a senator’s daughter, while walking the strut of a sexually enlightened teenage girl.
Meg Stiles (Bianca) was much more powerful on stage. Her long legs and gaudy actions never failed to elicit a proper laugh from the audience. She portrayed a naiveté that overshadowed the character’s job as a prostitute so that Bianca’s tragic end came off as saddening.

But the most powerful actress was Joanna Getting, who brought her character Emilia to life more than any other actress. Even when other characters took the stage, Getting’s facial expressions were enough to maintain the audience’s attention. Her Irish-sounding dialect and hardy movements felt perfect for Emilia’s character.

To prepare for Desdemona, the actors went through a series of training in Viewpoints, a movement training method adapted from modern dance developed by Anne Bogart. Director Julie-Costa Malcolm trained both the principal and alternate casts, using different varieties of training for each.

“As a result [of various types of training], the principal cast connected more strongly with the text and the alternate cast connected more strongly with Viewpoints,” said Malcolm, a doctoral student at Pitt. “And you can see that when you watch the two versions of the show.”

“I feel like the production was a success because everyone involved had a powerful and important learning experience. I’m proud of the results,” she said. “And, as always, I’m impressed with the work the students here at Pitt can produce.”