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Theatre Review: Desdemona, a Play About a Hankerchief

By Barbara Popel on September 18, 2016

This 1979 play, written by American playwright Paula Vogel, puzzled me right from the first scene. Bronwyn Steinberg, the director, writes in the programme that “Vogel’s retelling of Othello … brings the female characters center stage and challenges our expectations,” and that Vogel’s play poses questions. Challenges and questions, indeed.

In Othello, Desdemona is a rather bland young woman who runs afoul of the evil Iago’s schemes and of her jealous husband’s rage. Desdemona is a victim, but not a tragic character, for tragedy demands that the noble hero or heroine is brought low by his or her fatal character flaw (jealousy, in Othello’s case).

In Vogel’s play, Desdemona has morphed into an unpleasant, selfish and lascivious young thing whose comeuppance is due to her own flaws, particularly her nasty treatment of her servant Emilia. Desdemona’s occasional rallying cry for “the new woman” – one who is free from societal strictures to do as she pleases, without the encumbrance of marriage – is overshadowed by her callous treatment of Emilia. It’s no wonder Emilia engages in a little class warfare by stealing Desdemona’s precious handkerchief (whose absence, you’ll remember, is what triggers Othello to begin to doubt Desdemona’s fidelity). Moreover, Emilia is written as a downtrodden ex-scullery maid, not the gentlewoman “fille de chambre” and wife of an officer whom we know from Othello. This Emilia is grateful for a tuppence increase in her salary, and spends most of the play doing laundry, peeling potatoes and mending her boss’s underwear.

Much of the play is given over to discussion of the sour relationships between men and women (definitely Mars and Venus!) and to exploration of relationships between women. It appears Vogel doesn’t believe true friendship can exist between women, at least not when class, money and power are added to the mix. Though Emilia states that, “as long as there are men with one member but two minds, there’s no such thing as friendship between women,” Vogel’s stronger argument was that, as long as there are class divisions, women can never be true friends.

L to R: Gabrielle Lalonde (Bianca), Élise Gauthier (Desdemona), Robin Guy (Emilia). Photo by George Salhani.

L to R: Gabrielle Lalonde (Bianca), Élise Gauthier (Desdemona), Robin Guy (Emilia). Photo by George Salhani.

The centrality of class is bludgeoned home by having the three actresses use exaggerated accents to indicate the social class each belongs to. Desdemona (played by Élise Gauthier) effects a posh upper class London accent (remember, Desdemona hails from Venice). Emilia (Robin Guy) takes on a thick Irish bog peasant accent. And the whore Bianca (Gabrielle Lalonde) assays a lower class Northern England (Midlands?) accent. The director’s notes assure us that Vogel wrote the characters’ dialects into the text, which supports my theory that Vogel’s primary concern was the issue of the class structure.

Speaking of accents, both my guest and I at times had difficulty understanding all three of the actresses. Their accents were just too thick, or perhaps their delivery was rushed.

The set – several lines of off-white laundry hung across the stage – worked very well to support the numerous short scenes, as did the lighting design. The sound design – snippets of late 20th century pop tunes – and the distractingly short skirts on the three actresses, worked less well.

Though Steinberg the director is an avowed feminist, if there was a feminist message in this production, it was opaque to me.

In most plays, there’s at least one character the audience sympathizes with; sometimes the audience even empathizes with them. Generally, this helps the audience to get into the play. It’s rare for a play to have neither empathetic nor sympathetic characters. Desdemona is one such play.

Desdemona, a Play About a Handkerchief is at The Gladstone Theatre (910 Gladstone Ave) until September 24. The performance starts at 7:30 pm, and is 80 minutes long with no intermission. Information and tickets at www.thegladstone.ca.

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