'Tis Pity He's a Moor

Shakespeare purists or anyone who groans upon hearing the word "deconstruction" should stay far away from Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief, the latest offering from In Mixed Company. Playwright Paula Vogel's hilarious one-act takes a sidelong glance at Othello, and asks: What were Desdemona and her gal pals up to while the Moor and Iago plotted against her? And where was Iago last Tuesday night?

Gorgeous acting and brisk, intelligent direction show off Vogel's short, funny scenes, each staged as a blackout. In quick peeks into the back room of the Moor's castle, we glimpse Desdemona's ruthless relationship with Emelia, her scullery maid and consort to her murder. We discover that Desdemona is, in fact, the whore her husband suspects she is, boasting about her sexual conquests and occasionally "filling in" for Bianca, whom Vogel draws as a Cockney hooker with a taste for sadomasochism.

Debra K. Stevens (who's played so many children in local productions that I expected her to enter rolling a hoop) performs the title role with great aplomb, strutting the stage and rolling her eyes while discussing the various penis sizes of the men in Othello's court. As a pious, uptight Emelia, Julie Whelihan is so good that she wasn't tripped up by an opening-night coughing fit that lasted through most of the performance. Although she hacked away for more than an hour, Whelihan never flubbed a line nor dropped her thick brogue. Heidi Sulzman, who plays a punked-out, tarty Bianca, bursts through a window halfway through the show and walks off with the remaining half-hour.

Director Kevin Kerrigan's work keeps getting better. He's careful to keep his performers reined in--these three are all flashy, scenery-gnawing roles--and relies on a handful of silent, 10-second blackouts to tell us more about these women than do longer scenes with dialogue. Kerrigan uses every inch of Holly Vesely's splendid set, which is every bit as impressive as anything that's hung at the Herberger.

For audience members not familiar with the original, Desdemona is preceded by Othello She Told, an amateurish, overacted primer on Shakespeare's famous tragedy that employs the same cast as the play we came to see. Local playwright Brenda Edwards has done better work.

Although Vogel's is a comedic, revisionist's version of Othello, the outcome is the same. But we arrive at the dramatic conclusion from an entirely different place--a warmer, more narrow place, certainly, but one that is--with apologies to Shakespeare--infinitely more entertaining.

Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief continues through Saturday, February 28, at the PlayWright's Theatre, 1121 North First Street.

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Robrt L. Pela has been a weekly contributor to Phoenix New Times since 1991, primarily as a cultural critic. His radio essays air on National Public Radio affiliate KJZZ's Morning Edition.
Contact: Robrt L. Pela