Three Sister‘s latest, Desdemona: A Play about a Handkerchief, is a strong production although the text that serves as its base relies heavily on traditional British class stereotypes which ultimately risks a lot of the play’s inherent social commentary being lost on a contemporary Ottawa audience.
Written by Paula Vogel in 1979, Desdemona is a feminist re-imagining of Shakespeare’s Othello from the viewpoints of Desdemona, Aemilia (Emilia in this version) and Bianca, characters who serve important dramatic purposes in Othello but don’t actually have much stage time in that play. Much has been altered from Shakespeare’s original, however: Desdemona is a bored aristocrat who fills her free time on Cyprus by playing manipulative headgames with Emilia and working part-time at the local brothel run by Bianca, Emilia is an Irish washerwoman whose devotion to the lady who employs her is entirely wasted, and Bianca is a loud Cockney waif who, though world-wise, is at heart deeply romantic. The accents with which each character speaks are written into the text, according to Bronwyn Steinberg’s director’s note, and while they do make sense dramaturgically there seems little reason for an audience in Ottawa in 2016 to feel any kind of connection to the class struggles that this text portrays.
The production is fairly high-quality whatever your opinion of the play itself. The entire play takes place within the laundry of the governor’s palace on Cyprus, and Nancy Anne Perrin’s set, consisting mostly of sheets along the clotheslines in the background, are a simple (and attractively executed) solution to filling the space of the Gladstone’s acting area, as the actors only ever occupy a small area at the edge of the stage. The cast of three approach the text with energy and verve, with Robin Guy standing out as frustrated servant Emilia, the only character who understands the divide between upper and lower class. Her (mostly) silent judgement of Bianca and her disapproval of Bianca and Desdemona’s friendship/working relationship manifests itself usually through facial expressions and body language, and it is a pleasure to watch. Gabrielle Lalonde’s Bianca is a well thought-out character whose arc is well structured and Lalonde makes strong choices with transitioning from one dramatic moment to the next, but she is hampered by the unfortunate Cockney accent that is part of the character. Élise Gauthier, as Desdemona, has the easiest accent as an upper-class lady, but all the same the accents seem heavily contrived on all accounts, even Guy, whose Irish accent occasionally slips in and out. The one truly bizarre aspect of the production is the transitions between scenes – the scenes themselves are staged realistically, but at the end of each one the actors freeze in place before breaking out into abstract movement while a contemporary pop song plays. Since the play consists of many short scenes, these transitions happen fairly often so they seem more functional than artistic.
A strong production; however, the choice of text in the first place remains puzzling. Desdemona can best be described as a sort of Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead for Othello, except that in Tom Stoppard’s absurdist take on Hamlet the title characters still interact with the other characters from the original play, and their powerlessness within their own plotline reinforces the absurdist style that Stoppard excelled at. In Desdemona, however, the three female characters only ever interact with each other, except for the occasional offstage knock at the door.
The problem with this choice is that with the exception of Aemilia giving Iago the handkerchief that ultimately seals Desdemona’s fate, none of the original Shakespearean women actually do anything that drives the plot of Othello forward – the idea of Desdemona is a lot more important than Desdemona herself in Othello, especially as the main plot-line in the original play is Othello being manipulated by Iago into believing the false scenario that Desdemona is unfaithful (though according to Desdemona, Othello had every reason to be concerned). Since none of the three female characters of Desdemona knowingly do anything to impact the plot of Othello (despite the handkerchief being in the play’s title, it only becomes important at the very end), watching them interact with only each other makes for a dull 70 minutes before Emilia makes the connection between Iago and his wanting the handkerchief, and her subsequent realization that Desdemona is probably about to die. This stands rather in stark contrast to Othello, a very plot-driven play that follows Iago’s determined quest to destroy the master that passed him over for a promotion. If the goal of Desdemona is to complement Othello stylistically as well as socially, then that makes perfect sense although it does rely rather strongly on a familiarity with Othello.
Desdemona: A Play about a Handkerchief is a reasonably strong production although the choice of play remains ambiguous for an audience whose experience of the British class system is mostly limited to Jane Austen, Downton Abbey, and the like. Perhaps the play’s most poignant line, Emilia’s “There’s no such thing as friendship between women” applies to the England of 100 years ago and before, but in a country that has subtler variations of regional accents and a government openly working towards full gender equality (at least in terms of political representation), Emilia’s angry admonishment hopefully has less truth to it.
Desdemona: A Play about a Handkerchief
Written by Paula Vogel
A Three Sisters Theatre Company production
At the Gladstone September 15-24
Running Time: 80 minutes
Directed by Bronwyn Steinberg
Stage Management by Louisa Haché
Assistant Stage Manager: Hannah Redman
Scenography by Nancy Anne Perrin
Lighting Design by David Magladry
Lighting Assistant: Kat Wong
Sound Design by Robin Guy
Fight Coordinator: Zach Counsil
Starring Élise Gauthier, Robin Guy, and Gabrielle Lalonde