by Zoe Case
Cockney, Irish and southern English accents intermingled hysterically last Saturday night at the final performance of Paula Vogel’s Desdemona: A Play about a Handkerchief. The show, part of Emily Erblich, Beth Seeley and Emma Smith’s comprehensive senior exercises, bravely tackled themes of class and gender. An all-female cast performed the 90-minute show in the Hill Theater.
Desdemona concerns the behind-the-scenes world of Shakespeare’s women. In the same way that Phillip Gregory’s Wicked evolves the story of The Wizard of Oz, Desdemona tells the other, more feminist side of William Shakespeare’s Othello.
“I think it’s a big service that Vogel did to Shakespeare,” Seeley said before the show. “Like, ‘Here are some really cool characters that you wrote. I’d like to expand upon them.’”
The men of Othello are visibly absent from this play, as highlighted by Director Elgin Martin’s ’16 staging. In a scene in which Desdemona hears a knock on her door and answers it, leaving the stage, the sound of her husband slapping her was heard throughout the theater. The men of the show are unseen, malevolent forces controlling their wives and driving their objectives. Othello’s abuse especially drives Desdemona to seek out the prostitute Bianca, in order to defy her husband.
Audience members who were unfamiliar with the Shakespeare play may have found it difficult to parse the various characters’ goals. “It’s definitely a companion piece, and that’s one of the challenges with it,” Martin said. Other members of the audience may have struggled with understanding the actresses. Though Seeley and Erblich adopted accurate, realistic Cockney and Irish accents, respectively, and had trained with dialect coach Emma Raider-Roth ’19, some jokes landed slightly off-base, simply because much of the audience had a non-native, untrained ear.
The jokes that did hit, hit hard and unexpectedly. Erblich as Emilia, Desdemona’s lower-class handmaiden, navigated the stage in delightful ways. Erblich had total command of her body, whether she was running from Seeley’s murderous Bianca, angrily peeling potatoes at the behest of her conniving mistress or simply doing laundry. Her slapstick inspiration and command of comic timing served her well.
Seeley’s Bianca was a breath of fresh air. Even her first timed entrance, which happened almost halfway through the show, brought a laugh. Seeley’s face was infinitely expressive, and when paired with Gibson Oakley’s ’16 costume design, her character as a guileless prostitute was complete. Bianca unwittingly leads Desdemona into a dangerous situation with her husband, and Seeley’s ability to connect onstage aided her role as Desdemona’s ruinous confidant.
Underneath it all was Smith’s rock-solid performance as Desdemona. Though Smith may not have been the funniest of the three, her character drove the plot forward. The brilliance of all three women is that they never pretended their characters were perfect. Each had her vices, and yet, their unexpected kindnesses toward one another made it through all the noise of their onstage fights.
Oakley’s work on the set supported the play and its idiosyncrasies. It was a unit set, and the time period is unspecified because while Othello is set in Venice, Vogel imagined the British accents. The feeling of the set is rustic yet feminine. Rusted washboards and clotheslines were draped across the stage as if they belonged there. The only confusion occurred because there was only one entrance onstage. It seemed all characters were simultaneously entering through Othello’s palace and the street.
Both Yoobin Han’s ’18 lighting design and Katherine Deal’s ’17 sound design carried the script’s demand for the scenes to be in cinematic takes, as many scenes were very short, just a few lines and a change of position to show the passing of time. Jasmine Manuel ’17 nailed her work as prop designer, especially with the sheer number and placement of props.
Overall, the production was well-constructed, and the choice of play fitting for the three actresses. Watching those three explore and develop relationships between their characters was like watching them become friends with one another all over again.
“There is no such thing as friendship between ladies,” Erblich’s Amelia said near the end of the play. But this production proved that to be dead wrong.