We are not used to a Desdemona who rages, “Where is the crappy little snot rag?” as she turns Emilia’s quarters upside-down in search of the article that will be her undoing. Nor would we necessarily expect that this Venetian senator’s daughter, having risked everything by eloping with the noble Moor Othello, would be spending her free weeknights in Cyprus turning tricks in Bianca’s bordello.
For those who, like the 17th century essayist quoted in the program of “Desdemona,” find Shakespeare’s “Tragedy of Othello” to be just so much sturm und drang about a handkerchief, Paula Vogel’s new satire offers a biting diversion.
Then again, those who come expecting “Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead” will be disappointed. True, both plays refract well-known stories through the eyes of minor characters (who make the admittedly major sacrifice of their lives). And both emphasize class differences among these characters. But if Tom Stoppard’s freshman effort betrayed the literary eclat of a university wit, Vogel’s humor is more raw, her politics tougher (and heavier-handed) and her comedy, in the end, much thinner.
Imagining Desdemona (J. Smith-Cameron, in a luxuriant blond wig) as a foul-mouthed, post-adolescent princess disappointed in marriage and bored by her prospects doesn’t go a long way toward arousing sympathy for someone about to be murdered by a jealous husband. It’s momentarily funny to contemplate the fact that she’s a slut who’s had everyone but Cassio, the lieutenant whom Othello suspects of having cuckolded him. But the moment passes quickly.
Sympathy and humor probably aren’t Vogel’s aims. In “Desdemona,” the heroine’s strongest attachments are to her servant, Emilia (Fran Brill), who is herself most unhappy in marriage to Iago, and Bianca (Cherry Jones), the Cypriot madam who represents to Desdemona freedom, independence of spirit and achievement.
About her husband, Desdemona has bitterly concluded that “under that exotic facade was a porcelain Venetian.” In a neat twist, Bianca herself accuses Desdemona of sleeping with Cassio and thus destroying her prospects for marriage. Desdemona’s disillusion at Bianca’s conventional dreams is as palpable as her marital malaise, and it’s the kind of twist that makes Vogel so interesting a writer despite the inconsistency of her plays.
The shifting alliances among the three women — unfaithful as they are to “Othello”– give “Desdemona” more resonance than prattle about the size of Iago’s penis. The 80-minute one-act is staged as a series of blackout scenes, all set in the earthy servants’ quarters grittily realized by Derek McLane and beautifully lit by Michael Lincoln.
Under Gloria Muzio’s direction, the three actresses play the comedy wonderfully but don’t seem to know what to do with the darker stuff, and that’s when the play sputters to a halt. Following “The Fiery Furnace,””Desdemona” marks Circle Rep’s second impressive production this season of a woefully underwritten play.