Everything is a matter of perspective. One woman?s 9-to-5 job is another?s escape to freedom. One woman?s jest is another?s faith. "Desdemona: A Play About A Handkerchief" is about much more than linens ? it is black comedy at its blackest as three women?s lives intertwine over frank discussions about sex, men, friendship and love.
Paula Vogel?s play offers us another look at Shakespeare?s tragedy "Othello," this time from the women?s point of view. Tara Garwood portrays Desdemona as a "young, unbridled colt" who escapes the drudgery of marriage by moonlighting as a prostitute. Emilia (Molly Moores) is her maid and laundress, a woman who clings to her rosary and her propriety while praying for the day her husband, Iago, "makes her a lieutenant?s widow." And Bianca (Beth Hylton), the "harlot with heart of gold," provides Desdemona with graphic tutelage in the finer arts of sadomasochism while actually dreaming for what Desdemona would happily abandon: marriage.
All three women are ultimately undone by their blindness to the other?s perspective. Desdemona, the lady of privilege, fails to see how her philandering could have horrible repercussionsfor Emilia whose life and livelihood depend upon her mistress? fortunes. Emilia, is focused only on her attempts to raise her station, and so steals Desdemona?s handkerchief and gives it to her husband, Iago, refusing to see how this deception will lead to her lady?s demise. And Bianca is blinded by jealousy when she believes the handkerchief, a gift from her would-be husband, Cassio, represents betrayal on the part of her friend, Desdemona, seeming proof of Emilia?s contention that "there?s no such thing as friendship with ladies."
While the iambic pentameter is left at the door, the language crackles with wit as the women "shrink their vowels and enlarge their vocabulary" on topics ranging from purdah to perfidy.
None of the characters are particularly likable. Desdemona seems happiest when berating men. For her, men are vehicles to take her to new worlds and experiences, nothing more. A "vessel of vinegar," Emilia is all "save and scrimp, plot and plan," while Bianca turns out not to be the 16th century Bettie Page-meets-Gloria Steinem Desdemona had thought her to be.
And why? Blame the men. Emilia is married to Iago, not exactly one of Shakespeare?s more whimsical creations. Othello, jealousy incarnate, attends Desdemona, while working girl Bianca is betrothed only to a fool?s dream of becoming the aristocratic Cassio?s wife, living in "a cottage by th? sea."
Real love rarely enters into Vogel?s three-woman equation, as all seemed far too consumed by life?s pains and their own perceived misfortunes to feel anything else.
IF YOU GO
"Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief"
» Venue: Baltimore Shakespeare Festival, 3900 Roland Ave., Baltimore
» Times: 8 p.m. Thursdays through Saturdays and 5 p.m. Sundays through Jan. 28
» Tickets: $25; $20 for seniors, students, teachers with ID, BTA members and artists; Thursday night shows are $15 forall.
» More info: 410-366-8596, www.baltimoreshakespeare.org