The main character in Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief, a tartly feminist play by Paula Vogel, is not the honorable heroine of Shakespeare’s Othello. As written — and as performed with ferociously funny flair by Paige O’Malley — this Desdemona is an impetuous and imperious trophy wife, brazen and brassy, who puts down Emilia, her put-upon maidservant, and puts out for pretty much any man in town.
O’Malley’s star turn in the role is so all-out entertaining that one could easily imagine her killing it as any number of divas, grand dames, and delightful ditzes. She makes comedic scenery chewing look scrumptious.
The idea of centering the three women characters in Othello — Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca — and making them the protagonists of their own play is tantalizing, especially if one is a fan of Tom Stoppard’s centering of Hamlet’s Rosencranz and Guildenstern. Add to that the perfervid sex-positivity of playwright Paula Vogel and it looks like We Happy Few has a buzzworthy doozy in Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief.
In the playwright’s most flagrant departure from Shakespeare, Vogel has Desdemona dabbling in Bianca’s profession (the world’s oldest). Actually, she more than dabbles. She spent the previous Tuesday on her back in the dark in Bianca’s bordello, and she is expecting the imminent arrival of the sex-biz whiz to pay her a piece of the action.
Desdemona’s comic foil is the dour and devout Emilia, who does not approve of such assignations. In a fine performance by Raven Bonniwell grounded in grace without groveling, Emilia puts up with her spoiled-brat boss in part because they bond over their very dim view of men — for instance, they share knowing jokes about dick size and coital ineptitude. Emilia confides that she wishes her husband Iago, whom she despises, would die and leave her a wealthy widow. And Desdemona turns to Emilia for solace after a brusque offstage slap from her jealous husband Othello.
Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief, written nearly 30 years ago, is predominantly women talking about men, so it would not do well on the Bechdel test. Nevertheless, a provocative theme running throughout the play is whether women can be friends. Emilia says they can’t — in particular, she says, there can be “no friendship between ladies of leisure and ladies of the night.” But that view is dramaturgically countered when Bianca — in a sassy and savvy performance by Gabby Wolfe — turns out to be Desdemona’s new BFF. Theirs is not a friendship without kinks, though, as we see when Bianca demonstrates with a crop on Desdemona’s backside some best S&M practices from work.
The ladies’ elision of liberation with libertinism is pure Paula Vogel. But the titular handkerchief — one of Shakespeare’s most famous props, a square of strawberry-embroidered linen — functions in the storyline of Desdemona just as it does in Othello: as a gift from Othello to Desdemona, who loses it, then as a plot device that changes hands with tragic consequences. But really, both the hanky and the hanky-panky are dropped in as pretext for a more complex proposition about the intersection of the lives of women: Each of these three represents a distinct social class differentiated by dialect — the veddy British snob Desdemona, the Irish brogue’d servant Emilia, the Cockney cock specialist Bianca — and they are kept separated from one another by their different investments in patriarchal power.
Vogel set the play “ages ago” in “a back room of the palace at Cyprus,” and the shelves, laundry, benches, and worktable of Jon Reynolds’s set certainly say utility — but the eyepopping mural upstage says “right now”: It is gorgeously tagged with “#MeToo,” “GRRRL,” “Gender roles are dead,” “Rock the vote,” “Though she be but little she is fierce,” and the like plus the glyph for transgender (⚧). We Happy Few’s backgrounding of the play with contemporaneous pointers to unity in gender-hegemony dissent is brilliant.
The play is written in 30 short loosely sequential scenes, which Vogel specifies are not to be separated by blackouts. What Director Kerry McGee has done in the interstices instead is one of the most stunning aspects of the show. While a violinist, Manuela Osorio, plays her lovely original compositions, an amazingly animated lighting design by Jason Aufdem-Brinke shifts through multiple moods as the actors, in smartly updated period costumes by Ivania Stack, move through evocative choreographed tableaus. In McGee’s program note, she says, “an almost lyrical lightness is possible in these in-between moments,” and she nails it. The in-betweens are just as pleasing as the scenes.
Running Time: Approximately 85 minutes, with no intermission.
Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief plays to June 11, 2022, on Thursdays, Fridays, and Saturdays at 7:30 pm, presented by We Happy Few performing at Capitol Hill Arts Workshop, 545 7th Street SE, Washington, DC. For tickets ($25) call 202-547-6839 or purchase online.
The program for Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief is online here.
COVID Safety: Audiences must provide proof of vaccination and take a temperature check upon entering the venue. All audience members must remain masked throughout the performance.
Paula Vogel’s ‘Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief’ next from We Happy Few (news story)
Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief
By Paula Vogel
Directed by Kerry McGee
Assistant Directed by Emilia Pazniokas
Raven Bonniwell as Emilia
Paige O’Malley as Desdemona
Gabby Wolfe as Bianca
and Manuela Osorio on violin
Produced by Debora Crabbe and Jon Reynolds
Original Music by Manuela Osorio
Stage Management: Rachel Dixon and Makenzi Wentela
Set Design: Jon Reynolds
Lighting Design: Jason Aufdem-Brinke
Costume Design: Ivania Stack
Assistant Costume Design: Ellys Abrams
Sound Design: Louis E. Davis
Props Design: Rose Talbot
Intimacy Direction: Emily Sucher
Dramaturgy: Aria Velz
Graphic Design: Stefany Pesta
Videographer: Robert Pike
Photographer: Mariah Miranda