A PLAY ABOUT A HANDKERCHIEF at We Happy Few

Raven Bonniwell (Emilia), Paige O’Malley (Desdemona), and Gabby Wolfe (Bianca) in Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief.
Photo Credit: Mariah Miranda

I’m always up for a good retelling of Shakespeare, especially with a feminist approach. 10 Things I Hate About You is one of my favorite movies, and I’ve been fortunate enough to see a number of great reinterpretations here on the DC stages over the years: Taffety Punk’s OthelloSTC’s Merchant of Venice and Richard IIIDaily’s A Midsummer Night’s Dream, king john and Henry IV at Folger. . .. DC can and regularly does Shakespeare incredibly well, and our community is wonderful at balancing a care for these beloved plays with the nuances and perspectives of modernity.

Within this framework, then, We Happy Few’s latest production, Desdemona: A Play about a Handkerchief should fit right into that list above. And yet, I couldn’t help but find myself incredibly frustrated with the production.

Desdemona seeks to retell Shakespeare’s Othello from the perspective of the play’s tragic heroine, with a focus on the women of the play, who are background characters at best (Bianca, it should be noted, was removed from many productions during the 19th century because her profession as a courtesan was too scandalous for Victorian audiences). The show is comprised of a series of vignettes in which the audience watches Desdemona interact with Emilia, her maid and Iago’s wife, and Bianca, a courtesan and Cassio’s lover.

The interactions all take place in the laundry room, decidedly the women’s realm, and highlight the very different stations each woman occupies: Desdemona, as a high-born Senator’s daughter and wife of a General, is flighty and spoiled; Emilia, lower born and previously having served as a scullery maid in Desdemona’s father’s home de ella, as a resentful but hard worker trapped in a marriage with the cruel and manipulative Iago; and Bianca, a “free” woman who owns a brothel but secretly longs for the stability and safety of marriage and a family, is unknown but also innocent of the boundaries and expectations of Venetian society.

In this retelling, Desdemona isn’t a sweet girl who falls deeply in love with Othello, but a bratty and fickle woman whose attention is constantly moving to her next whim, and who enjoys pushing the boundaries of her status as a lady. She is not only unfaithful, as Othello fears in the original text, but ella happily works at Bianca’s brothel for the thrill of the forbidden adventure, and openly reminisces about her interactions de ella with past lovers while rolling her eyes at her husband’s suspicions de ella .

When she loses the handkerchief he gifted her, it’s out of careless indifference to their relationship, and she often bemoans that he doesn’t bring her any gifts of value. Her interactions de ella with Emilia reveal a cruelty-she delights in dangling promises of advancement as a means of manipulating the maid into aiding in her whims and schemes de ella, and she enjoys making the woman feel small or reminding her of her de ella place her.

Desdemona’s enamored with Bianca, who she sees as a free woman, could speak to her desire to be her own person, but it seems far shallower than that, particularly when the two get drunk and tell stories about the brothel. Emilia, in turn, holds herself as superior to Bianca because of her de ella “disreputable” profession de ella, and transfers Desdemona’s cruelty toward herself by looking down on the courtesan, even using the same insults Desdemona directs at her. It also turns out, unsurprisingly, that Emilia is less loyal to Desdemona than the latter assumes; she is, in fact, the one who put in motion the events that both women realize will lead to Desdemona’s death of her, a fate they briefly try to fight but eventually accept.

I understand what Paula Vogel’s play is attempting to do. But centering a play around and only featuring women does not make it inherently feminist – indeed, any nods at feminism are far outweighed by the fact that the women in Desdemona openly disrespect and undermine each other. The venom tossed around the stage makes it impossible for the women in this production to support and uplift each other – key tenements of current feminist ideology. In many ways, this felt like the flurry of “feminist” retellings we’ve been bombarded with of late – notably, the recent Andrew Lloyd Webber and Amazon attempts at “feminist” versions of cinderella (both of which ignore that Cinderella is often mischaracterized in these critiques, given that she was simply a woman looking for a night out to escape her horrible life and just happened to meet a prince while she was at the party, and that Ever After already nailed the feminist retelling far better than any recent attempt could ever hope to).

But screaming to the world that your production is feminist doesn’t make it so, and it certainly isn’t if your characters only discuss the men in their lives and spend more time sniping at each other than supporting their goals as full, individual human beings. Which brings me to my next issue: by making Desdemona the opposite of Othello’s perfectly innocent victim, Vogel simply creates another, mirror caricature – of course Desdemona’s death should be regarded as tragic regardless of how perfect she is, and she certainly didn’t deserve to be murdered even if she were as awful as Vogel makes her, but the character in this production is equally unrealistic. By making Desdemona so irredeemably awful (where her only good quality de ella is that she may object to racist remarks about her husband), Vogel once again fails to portray Desdemona as an actual person, which is (or should be) the main objection to Desdemona’s portrayal in the original text.

While I have issues with the core of Vogel’s play, I’m also disappointed in the execution, both in her script and in We Happy Few’s production. The writing is choppy; my companion and I couldn’t agree on whether the events presented took place over the course of the same day, same week, or a longer period of time, and there were a number of unnecessary tangents that may have been intended to develop characters but in practice were quite boring. A lot of the humor felt forced-an overly dramatic wink at the audience every time a reference was made to Desdemona’s fate de ella or an over-the-top story of a sexcapade that lost its humor in its exaggerated telling.

Vogel’s play was originally written in 1993, so perhaps it hasn’t aged well, but I was also surprised by some of the choices made by We Happy Few in the mounting of this production. I assumed the play premiered in the UK, or was at least written by a British writer, given the production’s decision to utilize British accents – and the related class distinctions – in this show, but Vogel is, in fact, from Washington, DC, and the play premiered in New York. Which means We Happy Few has fallen prey to a commonly frustrating trope in entertainment: the use of unnecessary British accents. The idea that London, Irish, and Cockney accents should be utilized for a play about Italians and Croatians is a bit puzzling, especially since those same class differences could have been explained to Americans using New England, Southern, and deeply rural accents just as effectively .

The costume choices were cartoonish – Desdemona prances around in kitten heels, a corset, a silk robe, and a tiara; Emilia’s shift is too colorful and modern-looking; and Bianca looks like she was dressed using Westworld saloon rejects – and the hairstyling on Desdemona in particular was confusing. Most frustratingly, the back wall behind the main set pieces was painted with gorgeous images and quotes from Shakespeare and feminist movements, highlighting the ideals that should have been the focus of this show; since the production fails to meet those expectations, it feels completely disconnected from this set piece. The show that fits that wall is the show I hoped to see, but it certainly wasn’t the show I got.

The cast puts up a valiant effort, but with such disappointing material and presentation, it’s impossible for them to pull themselves out of the look around them. One bright spot, though, was Manuela Osorio’s beautiful violin work, a cute gimmick in which she alternatively transitioned scenes and actions or musically bantered with the characters.

Overall, though, Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief is a lackluster production. With so many better and more thoughtful options out there, this production doesn’t meet the standard I’ve come to expect of the DC theater scene’s forays into the Bard.

Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief runs through June 11th at the Capital Hill Arts Workshop. Production run time is approximately 1 hour and 30 minutes, with no intermission. Please note that this production contains descriptions of sexual acts and domestic violence as well as racial micro-aggressions, and may not be suitable for younger audiences. Additional information can be found on the We Happy Few website.

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