THE BASICS: DESDEMONA: A Play about a Handkerchief, by Pulitzer Prize winning Paula Vogel, presents a different look at Shakespeare’s OTHELLO, presented by Brazen-Faced Varlets. Directed by Lara D. Haberberger, starring Jeni Arroyo, Caroline Parzy-Sanders, Stefanie Warnick it runs through October 29: Thursday 10/26 at 8:00 p.m. is pay-what-you-can, Friday 10/27 at 8, Saturday 10/28 at 2, Sunday 10/29 at 2 at Rust Belt Books, 415 Grant Street, two blocks south of Buff State (598 – 1585). Runtime: 90 minutes without intermission.
THE GROUNDWORK AND PLOT: You may recall some of the characters in Shakespeare’s OTHELLO. They are: Othello – the General, husband of Desdemona; Iago – Othello’s trusted, but traitorous ensign; and Cassio – Othello’s loyal and most beloved captain. Iago is jealous of Cassio’s access to power, so he plants on Cassio one of Desdemona’s handkerchiefs, after having first whispered to Othello that Desdemona was being unfaithful with Cassio. There are only three women in the original play and their roles are described by their relationships to the men: Desdemona – Othello’s wife; Emilia – Iago’s wife and Desdemona’s maidservant; and Bianca – Cassio’s lover.
The women talk mostly about their men, the sizes of their penises and their virility, or the lack of it, and how they want to escape their current situation.
This play, DESDEMONA, attempts to flesh out these women characters. It turns out that Desdemona, a lady of rank, is indeed sleeping around with the entire encampment. Meanwhile, Emilia the servant can’t stand her husband, Iago, and longs to escape, not from the cunning and savage Iago of Shakespeare, but the unpromotable loser with the tiny penis. Bianca appears to be a free spirit, a lower-class madam of a brothel which occasionally uses a “new girl” – Desdemona out for a sexual lark. The women talk mostly about their men, the sizes of their penises and their virility, or the lack of it, and how they want to escape their current situation. Desdemona and Emilia just want out and Bianca wants to marry Cassio and settle down in a little cottage. In the end this is not a heartwarming tale of sisters-in-the-hood but of three unhappy women unable to escape the vortex.
THE PLAYERS, THE PLAY, AND THE PRODUCTION: All three actresses were very good, stayed in character, knew their lines, moved well about the extremely tiny stage, all that good theater stuff. Caroline Parzy-Sanders has a beautifully expressive face and with lines mostly of the “Yes, m’lady” variety we need to know what she’s really thinking without saying it and we do. Stefanie Warnick makes a very attractive Desdemona, although her delivery is a little muted. Warnick also choreographed the fight sequence which is more realistic that most and in that tiny theater it sure gets your attention! Good job.
But the coveted role in this play has always been “Bianca,” the Cockney spewing swaggering brothel owner and girlfriend of Cassio. Kudos for casting young Jenni Arroyo, busting out of her bustier, all tattooed and spiky, brimming with attitude, who gives us the take-no-prisoners performance that one expects. If you go only to see Arroyo in action, you’ll get your money’s worth.
As Artistic Director of the Varlets, I search for plays that are edgy, women-centered, and issue driven.
The Director’s Notes are instructive. Lara D. Haberberger writes: “It can be a daunting task finding plays that our small theater company can produce well, that fit our mission, and that our audiences will appreciate. As Artistic Director of the Varlets, I search for plays that are edgy, women-centered, and issue driven. Since October is Domestic Violence Awareness Month, I wanted a play that dealt with the issue of intimate partner abuse. Also, one of our main missions is to produce works that re-imagine the theatrical canon with women in the forefront. Plus, personally, I love a witty, smart, dark comedy and I think you, our audience, does too. DESDEMONA: A PLAY ABOUT A HANDKERCHIEF is the perfect fit.”
It is the perfect fit in all the ways that Haberberger lists. And it’s a good production of a work by an important American playwright and you should go see it. But SPOILER ALERT it’s not a comedy in the classic sense. It’s a tragedy. These women are trapped by their society. Sure, in lesser amounts Bianca, Desdemona, and Emilia go against the system. But hopes, plans, dreams, ambitions all die on stage and, with the singing of “The Willow Song,” we know that within hours Othello will murder Desdemona off stage.
Speaking of Desdemona, I understand that it was the playwright’s goal to make her a multi-dimensional “real” person, not just the mousy victim of her husband. But don’t expect this Desdemona to be a heroic feminist role model. She takes her social status for granted, abuses her position of privilege, acts like a mini-Iago in fomenting jealousy, treats her maidservant like dirt, and SPOILER ALERT, really sticks it to her BFF Bianca. In short, she’s a bitch. So, Vogel has succeeded, but not in the way I thought she would.
As to the venue, as others have mentioned, this theater in the back room of Rust Belt Books is just too damn small. With room for only 18 folding chairs, we in the audience are awkwardly close to the action. There is never a protective “fourth wall” in this space; everything is “in your face.” Sure, for the big dramatic moments that’s great, but a play has to ebb and flow and we in the audience need a little down time to process. I have no solution, but I think that the first step starts with admitting that there is a problem.
…thank goodness we have The Brazen Faced Varlets in town.
Second, the play is split into 30 “vignettes” so that conversations are interrupted and then start again. I understand that the playwright has, at the beginning of the script, the following advice: “Desdemona was written in thirty cinematic ‘takes’; the director is encouraged to create different pictures to simulate the process of filming: change invisible camera angles, do jump cuts and repetitions, etc. There should be no black-outs between scenes.” Well, we did get blackouts, and the “stage” is too small and too close to show jump cuts, so the whole effect was confusing, at least to me.
But thank goodness we have The Brazen Faced Varlets in town. Unfortunately, we will have to wait until next March 9-24, 2018 for their next production: ‘NIGHT MOTHER to be directed by Lara D. Haberberger and starring Heather Fangsrud and Priscilla Young-Ankar. Looking forward to that.
*HERD OF BUFFALO (Notes on the Rating System)
ONE BUFFALO: This means trouble. A dreadful play, a highly flawed production, or both. Unless there is some really compelling reason for you to attend (i.e. you are the parent of someone who is in it), give this show a wide berth.
TWO BUFFALOS: Passable, but no great shakes. Either the production is pretty far off base, or the play itself is problematic. Unless you are the sort of person who’s happy just going to the theater, you might look around for something else.
THREE BUFFALOS: I still have my issues, but this is a pretty darn good night at the theater. If you don’t go in with huge expectations, you will probably be pleased.
FOUR BUFFALOS: Both the production and the play are of high caliber. If the genre/content are up your alley, I would make a real effort to attend.
FIVE BUFFALOS: Truly superb–a rare rating. Comedies that leave you weak with laughter, dramas that really touch the heart. Provided that this is the kind of show you like, you’d be a fool to miss it!