Paula Vogel

ArtsWatch Weekly: artists at play

A look at the week that was in Oregon arts. A glimpse ahead at the week that's going to be.

When visual artists and show people get together, interesting things often happen. Some collaborations have become legendary: Isamu Noguchi’s sculptural set designs for modern dance icon Martha Graham; Léon Bakst’s expressionistic designs for Ballets Russes. The original designs and even the title for the musical Fiddler on the Roof were inspired by the paintings of Marc Chagall. More recently, the South African artist William Kentridge’s astonishingly absurdist designs for the Metropolitan Opera’s 2010 production of Shostakovich’s equally astonishing and absurd The Nose brilliantly suggested the tone of the Gogol story that inspired the opera. Last season, Portland Opera produced Stravinsky’s classic mid-twentieth-century opera The Rake’s Progress, based on William Hogarth’s famous eighteenth century series of paintings and prints, with David Hockney’s inspired modernized designs.

Pamina (Maureen McKay), Paageno (John Moore) and Sendak's set. Photo: Cory Weaver

Pamina (Maureen McKay), Papageno (John Moore) and Sendak’s set. Photo: Cory Weaver

Now Portland Opera is back with a new production of Mozart’s fabulist opera The Magic Flute, using sets and costumes designed in 1980 by the brilliant children’s author and illustrator Maurice Sendak, whose designs for The Nutcracker were also a mainstay at Seattle’s Pacific Northwest Ballet for many years. Sendak’s sets and to a lesser extent his costumes for The Magic Flute are immediately identifiable as his and his alone: in this case the collaboration is an overlay of artistic sensibilities, a discovery of parallels between two artists whose outlooks differ but mesh well. Sendak’s bright color sense and playfully exaggerated figurative style emphasize the childlike aspects of Mozart’s music and the opera’s slightly nonsensical tale. Sendak didn’t so much rethink his source material, the way that Kentridge and Hockney did, as find a level of mutual agreement, a seductive surface that allows the music to dive more deeply behind the mask. He created very traditional tableaux, but in his own  pleasing and agreeable style, and the result is … well, pleasing and agreeable and pertinent.

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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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