This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk.
At the center of the famous tragedy of Othello is one of literature's most famous villains, a treacherous character that William Hazlitt once described as possessing -a total want of moral principle.- Interestingly, in the eyes of playwright Paula Vogel, that character is not Iago, but rather Desdemona.
Vogel, of course, is famous for her Pulitzer Prize-winning play, How I Learned to Drive; but Los Angeles right now is seeing a number of Vogel revivals, including her 1993 work Desdemona: A Play about a Handkerchief.
This play, which in essence is an Othello-ized Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead, tells the Lion of Venice-s story from the point of view of Othello-s three women characters: Desdemona, Emilia, and Bianca.
Desdemona is depicted by Vogel as a bored, spoiled housewife who-s turned to moonlighting at a local brothel to add some spice to her dull life as a General-s spouse. The only things she seems to enjoy-besides sleeping with every man in Cyprus-is taunting Emilia with the promise of promotions and listening to bordello gossip from her employer Bianca.
All of this is plausible, to a point. Very little about these women-s lives is spelled out in specifics by Shakespeare, so proposing that Desdemona was to run off with Lodovico is fair game. The whole reason the Moor believes Iago-s claims of dishonesty is that she lied to her father to elope with him. But Vogel doesn-t just make Desdemona a dishonest and manipulating shrew, it-s also implied that she truly hates her husband-as Desdemona even derides the famous handkerchief as -a crappy little snot rag.-
Desdemona is usually portrayed in productions of Othello as the most devoted wife imaginable and an embodiment of virtue-or as one critic once wrote -Shakespeare-s word for love.-
The idea then of making her the villain is interesting, but this hatred is completely invalidated by her final act in Shakespeare-s text, which is to try to protect Othello even after he has strangled her. Eventually Vogel-s gimmick wears thin and the result is Desdemona becomes the least interesting person on stage. Iago-s wife, with her tortured aspirations for herself and her husband, makes a much more involving character-as does Bianca, who-s played in this production by Thia Stephan. Stephan portrays Bianca as a tough cockney slattern, and it-s her moments on stage that the play steps out of Othello-s shadow and takes on a life of its own.
Those seeking a more traditional version of Othello, should carefully watch for news that the Royal Shakespeare Company-s new production will be filmed for posterity. The acting is so good in their Othello, it-s almost alone worth a trip to Stratford-upon-Avon. The main attraction there is the Iago performed by Sir Antony Sher. In America, Sher is known mostly for smaller roles in movies like Shakespeare in Love and Her Majesty, Mrs. Brown; but across the Atlantic, Sher is one of England-s most famous stage actors. (A London newspaper recently ran the headline: -Is Antony Sher the greatest living interpreter of Shakespeare?-)
At the RSC, Sher is accompanied a fellow South African, Sello Maake Ka-Ncube, in the title role and Lisa Dillon as Desdemona. Both are fine, but it-s Sher who shines brightest-surpassing Liev Schreiber-s excellent Iago at the Public Theater in my memory of recent portrayals of Othello-s duplicitous lieutenant.
Sher plays Iago as a corrupted British colonial officer. When he-s with his superiors, Sher-s diction and posture convey propriety and complete discipline-but once they leave, he becomes a slimy but efficient agent of destruction.
Sher-s acclaimed RSC Macbeth toured the U.S. four years ago, so one can hope that his Iago will make it over here as well. In the meantime, those craving Othello should seek out the Aquila Theatre Company this weekend. For two nights, this New York based troupe-who-s mod, 1960-s style Much Ado about Nothing was an off-Broadway hit a few seasons back-will perform Othello Friday and Saturday night at the Cerritos Center for the Performing Arts. Desdemona: A Play about a Handkerchief continues through Sunday at the Attic Theatre Ensemble in Culver City.
This is James Taylor with Theatre Talk for KCRW.