Desdemona by Paula Vogel

University of Washington & Lee, October 2015
Iman Messado as Emilia and Demoriya Phillips as Desdemona

Iman Messado as Emilia and Demoriya Phillips as Desdemona

Paula Vogel’s Desdemona cannot outrun Shakespeare’s Othello. She cannot escape her death. Nor, at least as much to Vogel’s point, can any woman escape the restrictions and restraints placed upon her by the men who define her existence.

Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief is one kind of feminist retelling of Shakespeare’s story. Vogel locates Desdeoma, her waiting gentlewoman, Emilia, and the courtesan (read: whore), Bianca, in a palace laundry room, a woman’s traditional space, to ask what a free woman might be, what price loyalty, and whether there can be such a thing as real friendship among women of different economic classes and levels of privilege?

But this is far from a feminist victory lap, and, as I prepared to direct this play, I struggled to understand some of the changes Vogel has made to the characters.

Vogel’s Desdemona is in some ways the polar opposite of Shakespeare’s: she is frequently unfaithful to Othello. Dr. Jennifer Flaherty has written, “Vogel creates a silly, spoiled, and promiscuous Desdemona who attempts to subvert the patriarchy that controls her.” Aching for freedom, opportunity and choice yet trapped in a society utterly determined by men, she can find self-determination only through sexual exploration outside her marriage. Emphatically, even here, she never has a tryst with Michael Cassio, the man with whom Othello is led to believe she is betraying him.

Shakespeare’s Emilia makes a kind of Early Modern analysis of the sexual double standard (that we high five sexually promiscuous men, that we laughingly say, “boys will be boys,” while we slut-shame their female counterparts):

“Let husbands know

Their wives have sense like them: they see, and smell,

And have their palates both for sweet and sour,

As husbands have. What is it that they do

When they change us for others? Is it sport?

I think it is. And doth affection breed it?

I think it doth. Is’t frailty that thus errs?

It is so too. And have not we affections,

Desires for sport, and frailty, as men have?

Then let them use us well: else let them know,

The ills we do, their ills instruct us so.”  (IV,iii, 92-102)

I like to imagine that this speech inspired Paula Vogel’s creation of this alternate version of the story of the women of Othello. Vogel’s play refocuses the storytelling in order to think about gender, identity and power.  Desdemona defines herself as “the daughter of a Senator;” Emilia longs to be a “lieutenant’s widow;” and Bianca aches for a husband, a cottage by the seaside and children. Flaherty astutely observes that Vogel’s Desdemona “demonstrates failed resistance instead of progressive achievement;” she doesn’t advance the cause of women’s self-determination; she gets caught in the crosshairs of the patriarchy. She lives in a world where a heroic Desdemona who overcomes her profoundly limited options is impossible.

Vogel repeatedly asks us to consider the limited options available to women at a particular historical moment she labels, “Ages ago.” Indeed, the questions are still worth asking: none of these women can create her own path to safety or self-determination, and by the time Desdemona and Emilia find a moment of connection, they are hurtling towards their deaths. Vogel seems to inquire, hopefully, “How about you, audience? How are you doing with true friendship and self-determination?”

Feedback / response

“Kate was both a consummate professional and inspiring teacher. She was able to guide and coax amazing strong performances out of our students. The entire cast has spoke nothing but praise about working with her. They found her work as a director to be transformational in their artistic process.”

— Owen Collins, Chair, Department of Theatre, University of Washington & Lee

“Paula Vogel’s Desdemona is a tough play. It upends the audience’s expectations and predilections about Othello – with an oversexed Desdemona and a Bianca that wants nothing more than to give up whoring and settle down in a suburban marriage. Emilia, stuck both in a miserable marriage and conventional thinking, emerges as the most thoughtful and courageous figure in the play. Kate Powers’ smart production of the play at Washington and Lee pushed the inverted logic of the play to its extreme – offering us an alternative Othello universe in which African-American women played all three roles. I won’t be able to teach or watch Othello the same way ever again.”

— Hank Dobin, Professor of English, University of Washington & Lee

“Working with Kate was a fantastic eye-opening experience. I’m certain I spent 97% of rehearsals outside my comfort zone and spent 100% of the time growing as an actress. I appreciate Kate’s open-mindedness. This show had the first all-black cast I’ve seen in my four years at the institution; the experience was definitely inspiring! Kate always made herself open and encouraged questions and interactions during rehearsals. She constantly directed us to find the motive of our character in each moment to determine how she would say the lines, move, and why she would make a certain decision. Kate emphasized relationship above all else when working together; she often had us think about what our character wanted from another and how she wanted to get it. She taught us to think about how our actions affected those around us and how to create tension in the scene using urgency.

“Kate wouldn’t tell us what to think or do; she had us analyze our characters and visualize the many layers and desires they held. We really had to tune in to the many power shifts that were taking place between the characters and I had to push myself and really meditate on my character.

“I really wish we would have had Kate for a longer time. She is a fountain of knowledge and she created a safe space for everyone to explore, make mistakes and look inside ourselves without judgment or criticism. Her warm-up exercises included pinpointing parts of our bodies that carried tension and inviting those parts to relax and let go. Kate has a very warm heart and loves to work with people. On top of her kindness is strict discipline. Kate stayed on top of our progress and did not tolerate any regression in our work. With the little time that she had with us she built us up and really encouraged my love for theater. I really and truly enjoyed my experience with Kate and I hope to work with her again!”

— Anthonia Adams, student actor (Bianca), University of Washington & Lee

“Working with Kate Powers was an amazing experience. She was a comforting figure whenever I came into rehearsal stressed from schoolwork and she’d always be kind and polite, but never boring. The warm-up techniques she showed us not only worked phenomenally (I use the breathing exercises in everyday life), but they also helped me become a lot more aware of my body and my words as I’m portraying a character on stage.

“Once you start working with her, you can tell immediately that she has years and years of valuable experience under her belt. She doesn’t dictate, she directs. She uses whatever the actor puts out on stage and she works with them so that everyone comes to a better understanding of the play and in turn a better performance. She didn’t force opinions on us and let us reach our own conclusions when in came to character decisions.”

— Iman Messado, student actor (Emilia), University of Washington & Lee

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