The Spotlight Theatre presents Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief, the second show of its inaugural season, in the East Fine Arts Building Theatre at Fontbonne College, a hidden gem of an auditorium with a great old proscenium and a raked seating area. Paula Vogel, who won the 1998 Pulitzer Prize for How I Learned to Drive, used this earlier work to retell Shakespeare's Othello from the point of view of his doomed wife, Desdemona. In Vogel's version, Desdemona isn't just a victim of circumstances but makes her own choices that collide with the outside world and bring her to that particular bed on that fatal night.
The action starts with Emilia stealing that famous handkerchief in a 15-second silent vignette, the first of some 30 scenes in the 90-minute play, all separated by the ringing of a bell. There's no need to send to ask for whom that bell tolls, of course; it's obviously for Desdemona and the tragic fate that awaits her. But in Vogel's hands, it's not simply fate. Desdemona, it turns out, is not the innocent waif Othello thought he married but a sensual, experienced woman whose only outlet in this male-dominated society is indulging and enjoying her sexuality. In fact, Michael Cassio, whom the Moor suspects her of sleeping with, is the only one with whom she hasn't made the beast with two backs. She has even gone to the extreme of filling in for a night at Bianca's brothel, enjoying a night of anonymous sex in a dark room. As events of Othello occur offstage, Desdemona becomes wary of her husband's suspicions and plans to flee with her cousin and lover, Ludovico, the very next day. That night, however, she must deal with her husband. It's still the handkerchief that sets events in motion, but this time they are Desdemona's events. She's the master of her own destiny, not merely a minor character in a world of men.
It's an interesting premise that Vogel uses to take a feminine perspective on sex, history and class. Although it would have made a great one-act, it doesn't sustain a full-length play. The second plot point occurs some 40 minutes after the theft of the handkerchief and the next a full hour and 15 minutes into the proceedings. We finally feel as if the story is getting started and the characters connecting, but by then we're only 10 minutes from the end. The characters seem aimless, and there's only thematic exposition and the repeated thumping of the one-note joke about Desdemona's lack of innocence. Some of this fault is in the script, and some lies with the languid pace of Charlotte Dougherty's direction and the lack of connection between Erin Kelley as Desdemona and Michelle Burdette Elmore as Emilia. Elmore gives a good performance, but there doesn't seem to be much at stake for any of the characters. With little going on in the way of story, the evening depends on the moment-to-moment interplay of the characters, but we mostly get only bold strokes.
Dougherty's job isn't made any easier by all those vignettes, which make it hard to establish any rhythm of storytelling or performance. Vogel seems incapable of writing an extended scene, and it's maddening. Just when you want the characters to start doing something -- connecting, conveying a story, entertaining us -- that bell rings again.
Vogel is also making a point about class, so Desdemona speaks with an aristocratic English accent, Emilia is working-class Irish and Bianca (an engaging Kim Furlow) a Cockney. No matter what their background, it seems, women are all in the same boat when it comes to men. Their only choices are whoring and washing laundry -- or is there a difference? It's a much-debated feminist issue that gets little new light shed on it here, and Vogel's exciting premise seems unfulfilled both dramatically and thematically.