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A Double-Dealing Desdemona

Othello minus the fellows

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Like the wonderful theater year just completed, 2002 in Charlotte is beginning auspiciously. Once again, it's the Chickspeare banditas who are playing a key role in delivering the igniting spark. Last January, they turned the local scene on its head with "the play where you move from room to room," Maria Irene Fornes' Fefu and Her Friends. This year, they're combining with BareBones Theatre Group in a presentation of Paula Vogel's Desdemona at the Off-Tryon Theatre. Less outre than Fefu, the current Des is no less significant. The confluence of the three little theater groups in one enterprise marks the high point in the first season of Charlotte's Off-Broadway, a joint marketing effort bankrolled by the Charlotte-Mecklenburg Arts & Science Council.

Adding extra pizzazz to the headlining three-week engagement on Cullman Avenue is a trio of Saturday night "Othello-thons" beginning at 8pm. On these special evenings, Des is preceded by concert reading of Othello, adapted and directed by Lydia Arnold and starring CL's reigning Theatreperson of the Year, April Jones.

While it isn't desperately important for you to know Shakespeare's Othello before watching Vogel's Desdemona, it definitely helps. Besides, the script-in-hand reading flashes you back to the original Chix mission: all female, all Shakespeare, all the time.

If you've seen or read Othello before, dramaturg Carol Butler's opening intro and synopsis may strike you as a bit of overkill. Once the reading begins, the compact storyline remains clearly in focus -- and the justification for the Chix mission becomes manifest. Among the longest roles penned by Shakespeare, women are totally shut out of the Top 10. Two of the longest -- and juiciest -- are to be found in Othello. The title role ranks number six on the list, and the mighty warrior's cunning nemesis, Iago, ranks number three, behind only Hamlet and Richard III.

Watching Joanna Gerdy take on the evil ensign, I'm certainly convinced that actresses can scale such Everests. Gerdy wraps her sinewy arms around nearly all of Iago, savoring his corrosive wit, his sullen resentment, his resourceful opportunism, his macho arrogance, and his slimy double-dealing. The only missing elements are the fires of his jealousy and the full intensity of his hatred -- partly because of the severe 70 percent abridgment and partly because Gerdy's immobile most of the time.

April Jones has indicated that she'll be switching off to Iago next weekend and reverting back to the Moor for Othello-thon Three. Meanwhile, she's demonstrating the challenges and the glories of the tempestuous general. You'll find a considerable amount of grit and steel in Jones's portrayal, but not surprisingly, she still comes up more than a little short in conveying the mighty Moor's stony confidence and his sheer intimidating presence in the early going. That's a storehouse of power that must be gathered for the proud general's disintegration to be truly horrifying.

But Jones makes us feel the depth of Othello's softer emotions more softly. When it comes time to throttle Desdemona, the war between tender and bloody emotions actually seems to be won by the chieftain's gentler side. That's largely because of the undimmed luminosity of Desdemona (number eight among the Bard's females), achieved through her unrelenting respect for the Big O and her angelic ability to mix pity for herself with pity for her duped husband's ultimate damnation.

Karen Doyle Martin isn't ideally framed for a truly naive Desdemona, but she recaptures the spirit well enough. Closer to the mark are Ann Lambert as Cassio, the patsy Iago supplants in Othello's favor, and Kim Hurst as Cassio's strumpet, Bianca. Lolly Foy, as Iago's ill-used wife Emilia, broke my heart with her anguish in the closing scenes -- more than Othello and Desdemona combined.

Usually, props are taboo at staged readings. But with a comedy to follow subtitled A Play About a Handkerchief, Arnold and her cast can't resist tossing that hanky around. A welcome dab of comic relief.

Vogel visits a ferocious retribution on the leading males in Shakespeare's melodrama, barring them totally from her retelling. Just don't expect Desdemona to be a cavalcade of righteous feminist rants. Giving the dramatis personae a vigorous reshuffle, Vogel casts Iago aside as an arch double-dealer and awards that distinction to Des. To hear her tell it, Cassio may be the only man in Cyprus who hasn't cuckolded the clueless Othello.

Des is now intimately acquainted with Bianca, the bawd who receives the fatal hanky. She turns tricks at B's place every Tuesday night. In fact, Bianca breezes in to the backroom of Othello's palace so she divvy up Des's earnings for the past week. Amid the heated action that ensues, Des actually gets her precious handkerchief back! Can Vogel still contrive to preserve Shakespeare's tragic ending?

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