January 12, 2002


a play about a handkerchief



reviewed by
Lynn Trenning






















For more about Lynn Trenning, please visit her main page.

For more information about Barebones and Chickspeare, please visit barebones.org and chickspeare.org.

(aired 1/18/02 on WFAE)

"This is the fruit of whoring," (V, i) cries Iago at the staged reading of Othello in the Noda Arts District. Welcome to Charlotte's self-proclaimed Off-Broadway theatre, where you can hear ten women read Othello, and then watch a play that flips that drama on its head. This double feature is performed on Saturday, in a collaboration between Barebones Theatre Group and Chickspeare, Charlotte's own all-female Shakespearean Troupe. Desdemona, a Play About a Handkerchief, is a topsy-turvy rendition of how the tragedy Othello would differ if, indeed, Desdemona was a strumpet. On other nights, Desdemona is performed alone, freeing the audience to ignore the Shakespearian connection if they wish. Detached from Othello, the play effectively exposes a washtub full of women's issues, as unresolved today as they were in Cyprus 400 years ago.

Cleverly staged by Lydia Arnold, the reading of Othello is performed by actresses who range from excellent to pretty bad. The accompanying play, Desdemona, extracts three women from Othello. Mired in domesticity, and out of the sight of their men, the women react to one another. Richly textured relationships between them are teased out through dialogue that often mirrors Shakespeare's.

Emilia, sporting an Irish brogue as thick as her scorn, is a poor, religious servant to the fickle Desdemona. Haughty and aristocratic by birth, in this play Desdemona really just wants to be a dirty little street girl. To this end, she seeks the company of the neighborhood floozy Bianca, whose Cockney accent is so good her words are often indiscernible without an interpreter.

Desdemona is not a play that glorifies women. The class differences of the three characters are as distinct as those of a Union County farm girl, a Myers Park princess, and a working woman from the Uptown Cabaret. While it makes sense for them to protect and support each other, their society is structured in such a way as to make true friendship between them impossible. Though the men in the play are off-stage and invisible, their abusive influences are evident in the lives of the women. Despite this, the worst enemy each of these women has is herself, and the second worst is each other.

In this play, convictions are fickle and dreams are elusive. A religious woman who believes in the sanctity of marriage desires to escape her own. A woman of privilege and beauty flits from bed to bed seeking more excitement than real life offers. A good time hooker yearns for a husband and children. Together they form a triangle of villainy and desperation worthy of Shakespeare.

Barebones director Julie Janorschke strayed from a Shakespearean time period with anachronistic touches that were cute, but interfered with the drama. While the women sported Elizabethan era dresses, they wore modern shoes. A clothesline hung with fashionable boxer shorts was a distraction. I'm fairly certain pedicures with foam toe separators weren't the rage in Cyprus that year.

Though acted with finesse, none of the characters were particularly likeable. Yet alarmingly, I identify with each of them. Playwright Paula Vogel claims that for her the word feminist "doesn't mean showing a positive image of women... but looking at things that hurt me as a woman." By the playwright's definition, I deem this a successful feminist play.

Lynn Trenning, January 12, 2002

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