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And Now a Word From ‘Desdemona’

June 24, 2008

By Robert Trussell, The Kansas City Star, Mo.

Jun. 22–John Rensenhouse wants audiences to see acting at its best — unencumbered and pure.

To prove the point, Rensenhouse is directing a no-frills production of “Desdemona, a Play About a Handkerchief,” the first show this summer from Actors Theatre KC.

Paula Vogel’s feminist response to “Othello” is a three-character study of the different ways women seek at least minimal power in a restrictive, male-dominated culture. Desdemona is not the noble entity of Shakespeare’s play, but rather someone who likes to sneak out with her trampy friend Bianca and turn tricks at a Venetian bordello while her servant, Emilia, feels inevitable resentment for her privileged mistress.

“What she’s exploring in writing the play has a lot to do with class and how women do or don’t help each other,” Rensenhouse said. “These women are just as conniving and manipulate each other because they are in different classes.” Indeed, Vogel chose to emphasize the point by assigning specific accents to each character. Desdemona (played by Ashley LaPine) speaks with an upper-class British accent; Emilia (Karen Errington) has an Irish brogue; and Bianca (Vanessa Severo) is a Cockney.

Rensenhouse’s concept for the show is to give the audience a taste of a final rehearsal-hall performance before a show moves to a theater and gets loaded up with scenery, lights and sound effects.

“For me that’s always one of the best performances of the play, because the focus is all on the actor,” he said.

Rensenhouse is staging the show in an actual rehearsal studio — Room 119 in the UMKC Performing Arts Center.

He’ll erect bleachers for an audience of about 50. The actresses will remain in view when they aren’t “on stage,” and the audience will see tape on the floor representing walls and doors. The furniture will be minimal, and the performers will be in corsets and rehearsal skirts, just as they would before they begin working in full costumes. Rensenhouse, playing the role of stage manager, will sit at a table with his assistants at the edge of the performing area.

“The audience will see the actors showing up, and you’ll see them getting into their rehearsal skirts and warming up a bit,” he said. “One of the major concessions to audience comfort is we’re installing some lights so they don’t to have to suffer under that overhead fluorescent lighting.”

In addition to the lighting, Rensenhouse said, he will employ sound and music effects.

“We have a fairly elaborate sound design, but it will be run through a computer on the stage manager’s desk,” he said. “We’ll just be pushing the buttons ourselves, and you’ll see an assistant stage manager moving things on the set as necessary. I think it will work both as a play and as an exciting look back stage at the theatrical process.”

By design the run of “Desdemona” will overlap with the Heart of America Shakespeare Festival production of “Othello.”

“The ideal thing is for people to go see ‘Othello’ out in the park and then come see our little play for a modern take on it,” he said.

THE SHOW: “Desdemona, a Play About a Handkerchief” begins performances Tuesday and runs through July 20 in Room 119 at the UMKC Performing Arts Center. Call the Central Ticket Office at 816-235-6222 or go to www.kcactors.org.

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Copyright (c) 2008, The Kansas City Star, Mo.

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