Take the men out of "Othello" and what do you get? In Paula Vogel's "Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief," written six years ago, you get a play that works a lot like "Othello." After all, it's still a man's world, a world full of ambition, suspicion and blind jealousy.
The play's palace back-room setting is tiny and out of the way, so the small black-box theater at the D.C. Arts Center turns out to be a very good venue for this show. The picture, one that Jude Kelly made much of in her 1997 production of "Othello" at the Shakespeare Theatre, is clear: The women have been pushed to the margins.
Vogel seeks them out, but not merely to celebrate their undersung lives. (In fact, the play's depiction of women is so rough-edged and un-celebratory that the Theatre Conspiracy, a troupe devoted to women's issues, thought twice before taking it on.) In short, Vogel looks at what Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca do while Emilia's husband is whipping Desdemona's husband into a jealous frenzy.
Turns out that Othello has plenty to be jealous about. Desdemona is a bit of a thrill-seeker, and more than a little disappointed to discover that underneath, her conventional hubby is a "porcelain white Venetian." For a lark, she substitutes for Bianca--a thriving Cypriot hooker--one evening, servicing Bianca's Tuesday night customers under cover of darkness. The aristocratic but housebound Desdemona envies Bianca, whom she sees as a "new woman" full of freedom and independence. Ironically, all Bianca wants is a husband, and Michael Cassio, who will end up with Desdemona's incriminating handkerchief, just might fit the bill.
Though plenty smart, "Desdemona" isn't quite as accessible as Vogel's better-known "The Baltimore Waltz" and "How I Learned to Drive." It unfolds in the same general way--30 scenes, no blackouts, no intermission--but the play never shakes the aura of intellectual experiment. And though Vogel has penned some wonderfully cheeky lines, humor breaks down no walls here; we're seeing characters anatomized (and, in an oblique way, seeing literature criticized), not sharing the characters' pain. It doesn't help that the early scenes are obviously funnier than director Jennifer Ambrosino's production lets on.
Still, as the plot thickens and darkens, you begin to wonder what Vogel has up her sleeve. Where will this class tension and envy among the characters lead? Who is capable of what? Kathleen Coons's Desdemona treats Emilia with just the right degree of poorly masked contempt, while Toni Rae Brotons mutters and moralizes in a wide Irish brogue as Emilia, who insists that "there's no such thing as friendship between women." With her come-hither postures and sassy Cockney tongue (Vogel stipulates broad accents for all three characters), Michelle Shupe is a borderline caricature as Bianca. Yet Shupe finds a way to make you listen to every word, and when her Bianca enters and starts dominating the action you can feel the betrayal.
The centerpiece of Jennifer Stewart's set is an angled table that's less suited for folding laundry than it is for sexual reveries and spanking lessons (more of that cheeky humor, plus some surprising character development in Desdemona). In "Goodnight, Desdemona (Good Morning Juliet)," playwright Ann-Marie MacDonald argued that the plot of "Othello" was so preposterous that Shakespeare simply must have intended to write a comedy, and her time-traveling heroine blithely sets things right. Not Vogel: She knows where Desdemona is headed and gives her play a bitter ending of its own (fueled by the reappearance of the missing handkerchief, natch). That ending would be impossible without "Othello's" rotten men, of course. But in "Desdemona," the women certainly do their part.
Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief, by Paula Vogel. Directed by Jennifer Ambrosino. Set and props, Jennifer Stewart; lights, Lynn Joslin; costumes, Jenifer Deal. At the D.C. Arts Center through June 5. Call 202-462-7833.
CAPTION: Ladies' night: Toni Rae Brotons, left, Kathleen Coons, and Michelle Shupe.