Women trouble

11th Street paves a bumpy, bright road for Desdemona

Feminist literary critics have tap-danced on the grave of every dead white male in the Western canon of letters...except for William Shakespeare. Willie the Shake has by and large escaped the scorched-earth academics who have reduced the likes of Milton and Marlowe to smoking cinders. The conventional wisdom is, in spite of the 17th-century England that foreshadowed the Puritan idea of women as the property of marriage, Shakespeare granted women an unprecedented range of emotions on the stage. Think of Lady Macbeth's "Unsex me now!" speech, the unfettered imperiousness of Titania, or the irony-rich final surrender by Katharina in The Taming of the Shrew.

Yet the women of the international theater have hardly been content with the roles Shakespeare handed them. Vanessa Redgrave gave herself a buzz cut and a deep voice for her own interpretation of Hamlet in London and New York. Olympia Dukakis recently visited our city at the invitation of the Shakespeare Festival of Dallas to perform an in-progress preview of her upcoming off-Broadway show, The Mystery of Things...A Woman's Explanation of Lear. King Lear's treacherous daughters figured into this staged reading, although they clearly weren't the object of Dukakis' affection; it was a decidedly feminine Lear who commanded the stage, although Dukakis never went so far as to declare her queen.

Shakespeare has invited gender-bending (and, in the case of Twelfth Night, even indulged in the vice himself), but rarely outright gender anarchy. Exceptions notable to Dallas theatergoers have been a French-Canadian play called The Queens, given its Texas debut three years ago by the now-dormant Classic Theater Company, which brought us the domestic intrigue behind the bloody political finagling of Richard III, as well as a script that marks the end of the '96 season for 11th Street Theatre Project--Paula Vogel's Desdemona...a play about a handkerchief.

Both The Queens and Desdemona contain all-female casts and take place in the back rooms of a castle torn asunder by internal betrayal, and both concern themselves with the equally venal political maneuverings of Shakespeare's women; the two plays use the key plot points in Richard III and Othello (the tragedy from which Desdemona riffs) to elaborate on the stories that the Bard only sketched--the lives of the women behind (and underneath) the great men.

While I enjoyed both productions, The Queens definitely tied its grandiloquent catfights to the unseen men in a way that basically parroted the original tale of bloody masculine intrigue in Richard III. In contrast, Paula Vogel uses Othello to catapult three forceful, fulsome, if tragically deficient, women into your consciousness--three women that existed in Othello's universe, but rarely got to speak their minds. 11th Street Theater Project's Desdemona starts off discordantly, as if the three lead actresses were each performing in a different play. But by the middle of the opening night performance, Vogel's sharp, nuanced dialogue had drawn the actresses together so that each was rewarded with hearty audience laughter at just the right moments.

In order to fully appreciate Desdemona, you probably need to have felt frustration watching or reading Othello. Shakespeare's tale of the proud Moor who is driven to smother his innocent wife because of an associate's treachery displays the author's usual supple understanding of how revenge and regret are the inseparable handmaids of love. But in too many versions, Othello's wife, Desdemona, is wheeled out like a porcelain prop, a beauty whose unsuspecting delicacy drives home the play's pathos.

In other words, Desdemona is a character you'd like to slap, if only because the word "VICTIM" is pasted on her forehead the instant she makes her stage entrance. The fact that she is innocent of fornicating with Othello's favored soldier, Cassio, is the wheel on which the entire tragedy turns. Still, there are many rough and intriguing edges that a resourceful writer or actress could discover in the Desdemona part.

Playwright Paula Vogel constructs a wild and wooly terrain with Desdemona that transforms the title character's cheerful one-dimensionality into a compelling, sociopathic selfishness. Vogel's Desdemona (Blue McDonnel) is a hedonistic child, the impetuous daughter of a senator who marries a dark-skinned commander as one in a long series of cheap rebellions. We learn in Vogel's play that as a child Desdemona also flirted with sainthood by scrubbing the stones outside her privileged parents' home with exhibitionistic fervor, then graduated to a brief love of horses, and finally declared herself on death's door with some mysterious illness. She was, in short, constantly demanding the attention of her parents, yet never satisfied by their interest.

Her latest affront to the establishment is a friendship with Bianca (Ellen Locy), a notorious prostitute of Cypress, although Desdemona makes sure to keep this particular transgression a private treasure, secret from her volatile husband. Desdemona is so enraptured by Bianca's outlaw profession and her relaxed and seemingly liberated attitude toward men that she subs for Bianca on Tuesdays; she receives the seed of one stranger after another in anonymous acts that make her feel as if she were traveling the world free from any one man.

A horrified witness to all of this is Emelia (Karen Lamb), Desdemona's scullery maid and the miserable wife of the absent Iago, the man who will be responsible for Desdemona's death. In Paula Vogel's vision, Emelia is less an unwitting pawn in her husband's vengeance than an idolizer of wealth and status, a cockney servant whose devotion to her lady comes from a heart that's not pure, but jealous. As the play comes to a close and both characters realize that the rage of Othello is murderous in proportion, Emelia attempts to reassure Desdemona of her husband's love by reporting having seen her master gather her lady's bed sheets in his hands and sniff them hungrily. "That is not love," declares a repulsed Desdemona, and Blue McDonnel drapes the statement with a thin black veil of horror that neatly predicts her character's funeral shroud.

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