SHAKESPEARE'S DESDEMONA has been called many things--innocent, virtuous, loyal, honest, blond--but seldom does the scholarship indicate that Desdemona was a lusty, two-timing tramp. But now that playwright Paula Vogel has written Desdemona: a play about a handkerchief, the truth is out. It seems that a mere week before Othello smothered his beloved in a jealous rage, Desdemona--who, you will recall, never stopped proclaiming her devotion to the Moor--was, in fact, turning tricks for Cassio's girlfriend, Bianca. And that's not all. For some time, Desdemona had evidently been slaking her thirst for lusty thrills by giving handjobs to the young men fortunate enough to sit next to her in church. Religious conversion is evidently her specialty.
There is an entire genre of plays that, with varying degrees of seriousness, tell Shakespeare's tales from a different point of view; Lee Blessing's Fortinbras and Tom Stoppard's Rosencranz and Guildenstern are two of the most amusing examples. Such exercises in bard-revisionism can indeed be fun, and they can occasionally offer up some intriguing new insights--as Desdemona definitely does. Yet they seldom hold up as plays in their own right. More often than not, they come off as the whimsical response to some beginning playwriting exercise: Suppose Hamlet killed Ophelia; or what if King Lear and Regan secretly had a father/daughter affair? It's the tabloid approach to playwriting: Assume the worst and print it.
Paula Vogel's Desdemona falls prey to the impulse to reformulate Shakespeare's characters without providing much justification for doing so. Desdemona does put an interesting neo-feminist spin on the story of Othello, and the Fully Reciprocal Theatre Company has put together a creditable production, but if the truth be told, Desdemona is less a play than a one-act lark. By allowing us into a sparsely furnished back room of the palace at Cyprus, where Desdemona and her chambermaid Emilia (Iago's wife) while away the hours, Desdemona purports to tell the "true" story of what happened the night Othello offed his wife. Or, rather, it tries to give us a more enlightened look into Desdemona's frame of mind as she lay on her bed that fateful night--posing the possibility that she knew she had deceived her husband and that she was probably going to die (if for all the wrong reasons).
In Vogel's reformulation, Desdemona (Becky Doggett) isn't exactly a two-timing strumpet--rather, she's a bored young woman who wants to travel and see the world. Since Othello won't let her leave Cyprus, she comes up with her own private version of frequent-flyer miles by sleeping with a lot of world-wise strangers and imagining all of the exotic places they've been. Doggett's portrayal is sensual yet girlish; her Desdemona is a young woman who can't stand being cooped up in the house and won't yield to convention. But she's also a sheltered, spoiled brat. Desdemona's fascination for the terms of cockney slang tossed off by Bianca (Kari Shaff), the whorehouse madame, reveals all. Anything outside Desdemona's normal sphere of experience--even if it's just a slang term for "toilet"--strikes her as the cleverest thing she has ever heard, and it may very well be.
Desdemona's relationship with Emilia (Ellen Apel) is the play's most perceptive nugget. In Shakespeare's play, Emilia is as devoted to Desdemona as Desdemona is to Othello. It is she who unwittingly gives Desdemona's handkerchief to Iago, setting the wheels of tragedy in motion. Here, however, Emilia is a saucy, opinionated woman who despises her husband and scolds Desdemona for just about everything she does. There is a delightful music in Emilia's many cockney-inflected rants, and Apel's performance gives Emilia the kind of vigorous, spirited complexity Shakespeare never bothered to provide.
Unfortunately, what is missing from Desdemona is a distinctive point of view--a reason for being. It's difficult to tell whether director Randy Latimer is to blame or the play itself, but the action is too often trapped in the ho-hum netherworld between satire and sincerity, groping for laughs on one hand and trying to elucidate time-honored truths about the frustrations of womanhood on the other. Furthermore, once the premise is established, much of the action and dialogue is as ploddingly predictable as, well, a Shakespearean tragedy. You know how it's going to end; Desdemona just takes you there via the back route, through Desdemona's not-so-innocent eyes.
The play does, however, reveal how Desdemona cared for those long blond tresses. Turns out she's been wearing a wig all along.
Desdemona: a play about a handkerchief continues through May 24 at the Little Theater of the Hennepin Center for the Arts; call 257-7265.