Monday, February 17, 2014

Desdemona says a lot about the company, if you can hear it

Posted by on Mon, Feb 17, 2014 at 11:53 AM

click to enlarge COURTESY SPRINGS ENSEMBLE THEATRE
  • Courtesy Springs Ensemble Theatre
Not much can be said in either defense or disapproval of a play in which not one, but two, major characters are rendered incomprehensible by the actresses portraying them.

But with Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief, which Springs Ensemble Theatre is staging, Paula Vogel seems to have written an often gripping exploration of suspicion, class antagonism, and gender allegiance among women that deserves our best attention anyway.

Vogel has taken shrewd and intriguing license with much of Shakespeare’s Othello to remake Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca into complex heroines suggestive of the best plays by Strindberg and Genet. We also learn a great deal about the men of Othello that interests and seems true, but understated in the original. (See our preview of the play here.)

Desdemona (played by the exceedingly talented Leah Jenkins) of the title is the very same as that of Othello, but of a completely opposite disposition. Here she is a willing pupil of duplicity and sadomasochism who luxuriates in a Venetian social position that both bores and over-insulates her. She throws fits over a lost handkerchief she doesn’t value much to begin with, and degrades her dutiful scullery-maid Emilia (Sarah S. Shaver) who willingly joins in the search.

Set in a combination laundry and tack room in Cyprus, the earthy, sensual disorder of the place provokes uninhibited confessions from Desdemona. June Scott Barfield’s set design is thoroughly convincing and laudable as evidence of the company’s taste and production values. 

As the scenes progress, the two women approach a kind of sisterhood, until Bianca (Kala Roquemore) arrives. Bianca has lured Desdemona into prostitution and initiates her into one of the more specialized practices of the trade while Emilia (and the audience) watch. The two indulge in a brief Bacchic episode leading into a cat fight over an assumed liaison between Desdemona and Bianca’s betrothed Roderigo. (Or was it Cassio?)

Slews of character and exposition, however, are lost by garbled and inept Irish and Cockney accents by Roquemore and Shaver. I estimate that approximately 30 percent of Vogel’s well-crafted, painstaking dialogue was decipherable by the audience. However, Jenkins more than holds her own as Desdemona, accent and all, and is reason enough for the SET to select and stage the play.

Though flawed, the best of SET’s intentions here ensure that there are much better things to come from this small but ambitious theater company.

Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief, Feb. 14-16 and 20-23, 7:30 p.m.Thursdays through Saturdays, 4 p.m. Sundays. $15, $10 for students. Springs Ensemble Theatre, 1903 E. Cache la Poudre St. For more, call 357-3080 or visit springsensembletheatre.org.

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