Desdemona a Play About a Handkerchief

A wrinkle in the bedsheets

Paula Vogel's "Desdemona, a Play About a Handkerchief" at Post5 turns the feminist tables on "Othello"

There are at least two reactions to Desdemona: She’s an annoying servant to her husband Othello, who keeps her waiting for days near their marriage bed, with little service to herself and person; or she’s the chrysalis of love’s dedication at all costs to the man she loves. Somewhere in the middle is the real wife of Othello, and with its new production of Desdemona, a Play About a Handkerchief, Post5 Theatre follows its recent staging of Shakespeare’s tragedy with Paula Vogel’s exploration of Desdemona’s character.

Vogel’s 1987 psychoanalytical voyage was ahead of its time. The America of the 1980s suffered a feminist backlash from which we are still recovering. We still hide under our bedsheets; state by state we step one foot forward and one step back in the political gender arena. Some of us can marry whom we wish. Others can’t use a public bathroom. The uncomfortable distinction of rights versus character continues on its unreasonable path. Vogel’s women’s-perspective version of the play, directed for Post5 by Mary McDonald-Lewis, puts sex-positive inquiry into the most extreme corners, with an acute understanding of Desdemona and the scholarship that unpacks her handkerchief. Out of the adversity and sacrifice of this late-twentieth-century feminism we have emerged with an understanding that there is no black and white. Each of us is who we are, by our own terms; and one day, we hope, that will be the golden rule.

"Desdemona": repression and release. Photo: Carrie Anne Huneycutt

“Desdemona”: repression and release. Photo: Carrie Anne Huneycutt

Shakespeare’s Desdemona moves back and forth with “yes, my lord and yes my lord.” Vogel’s Desdemona is a dread of boredom who seeks out any stimulus and promise. Minutes, hours, days, weeks go by just waiting. The two Desdemonas meet on even ground because they do not understand the power of sex, within themselves or in relation to others. It is this physical disassociation that undoes the world strand by strand, minute by minute. Vogel isn’t gimmicky. It’s all in the image and metaphor. Desdemona in Shakespeare is a mirror to the Moor. In Vogel she’s a mirror on Othello and herself. Vogel is also looking deep into the virgin/whore complex, and declaring that it’s not enough to master what are seemingly two different attitudes; one must also take out the gloves and dig deeper into an authentic identification. There is a freedom in exploring, but being listless in a time of confirmation gives a bare-boned result: where Iago’s deception kills Desdemona off in Othello, in Vogel’s play it is her own confusion that turns a marriage bed into a deathbed.

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