June 27, 2008

The Kansas City Star, Mo., Robert Trussell Column: Director, Actresses Put Postmodern Twist on ‘Desdemona’

By Robert Trussell, The Kansas City Star, Mo.

Jun. 27--It's always refreshing to encounter a piece of audacious theater that actually works.

Paula Vogel's "Desdemona, a Play About a Handkerchief" is plenty audacious but director John Rensenhouse and three talented actresses ratchet up the audacity quotient significantly in the first production of the summer from Actors Theatre KC.

Vogel's piece is basically a feminist response to Shakespeare's tragedy. She speculates on the kind of lives Desdemona, her maid Emilia and the promiscuous Bianca might have actually led in the male-dominated Cyprus of Shakespeare's play. The results are as comic as they are bleak.

"Desdemona" is by turns funny, haunting, disturbing, surprising, heart-wrenching and ultimately as tragic in its postmodern way as Shakespeare's original.

The three trapped women in Vogel's play are essentially trying to find their way out of a maze wearing blindfolds. What they each realize too late is that there's no direction home.

Rensenhouse's conceit is to stage the piece as a rehearsal. Performances are held in an actual rehearsal studio at UMKC. Props are minimal. The "scenery" consists mainly of hanging sheets. The actresses wear simple rehearsal skirts and remain in view of the audience even when they aren't on stage.

But, of course, this isn't really a rehearsal. Rensenhouse uses theatrical lighting and inserts crazed transitions between Vogel's short scenes. He creates a surrealistic soundscape with music as diverse as Marianne Faithful, Nancy Sinatra and Glenn Miller and the occasional ominous sound of overhead helicopters -- an allusion, apparently, to the prevailing military culture of Cyprus and Venice.

Desdemona, played by the lovely Ashlee Lapine, is a member of the ruling class who nonetheless feels imprisoned within her life of privilege. She has somehow befriended the tart Bianca (a simmering Vanessa Severo in a fine comic turn with a Cockney accent), whom Desdemona views preposterously as a sort of proto-feminist who rejects the conventions of marriage.

Karen Errington brings her natural earthiness and formidable sense of comic timing to Emilia, here transposed into an Irish Catholic with a jaundiced but resigned view of the ways of men.

Ultimately each character suffers a major disillusionment. Bianca, it turns out, really just wants a man with whom she can have babies. Severo's performance transitions without missing a beat from broad comedy to deeply felt despair.

Desdemona discovers that was entertaining little more than a fantasy by accompanying Bianca to the whorehouse; LaPine finds an admirable balance between Desdemona's sense of entitlement and the gradual realization that she's doomed.

Viewed superficially, Vogel's play seems little more than a state-the-obvious rant. But there's a lot bubbling beneath the surface. In the hands of these actresses, the play gets under your skin.

Desdemona, a Play About a Handkerchief," runs through July 20 in Room 119 of the UMKC Performing Arts Center. Call 816-235-6222 or visit www.kcactors.org.

To reach Robert Trussell, theater critic, call 816-234-4765 or send e-mail to [email protected]


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