note: entire contents copyright 2002 by Carl A. Rossi
These two one-acters were performed together as an evening's entertainment at The Directors' Lab and will have closed by the time you read this. I don't believe they were paired due to a common theme: but they did share one thing: good performances and – in one case – a great one.
DESDEMONA is Paula Vogel's version – deconstruction, if you will – of Shakespeare's OTHELLO, told from the point of view of the Moor's wife, wrongly murdered in her bed by her husband, himself driven mad from Iago's lies that she has been unfaithful. Since there is a tendency nowadays to play Shakespeare's heroines as lusty as his bawds – and Desdemona has not escaped this modern interpretation – she first needs to be put back into context before I can discuss what Ms. Vogel has done with her. Perhaps the best description of the lady that I can give in a pinch is to quote from WHO'S WHO IN SHAKESPEARE by Peter Quennell:
"This boldness [her secret marriage to Othello] must have seemed surprising, if not shocking, to an Elizabeth audience: especially as she had already violated the normal precept by which a young woman of good family was betrothed by her father. … Desdemona is not a meek and passive beauty, which is how she is too frequently presented on the stage. She is a sophisticated, witty woman of the world; we see this in her flippant banter with Iago and Cassio on the quayside (II.i). She is a Venetian lady, and Iago carefully reminds the naïve Othello of his ignorance of Venetian women (who had a very poor reputation in early seventeenth-century Europe). She loves Othello for his military glamour, but she does not fully understand his nature; she thinks of Cassio's suit as another social game, and is very slow to catch the jealous Othello's tone (III.iv). Her chastity is undeniable, but her background and her independent willfulness make her act in a manner that Iago is able to exploit. She is essentially blameless, but her small faults and indiscretions do contribute to the tragedy. In the last acts these are set aside, and the focus is on her virtue and love, on her as 'the true and loyal wife'. Emilia speaks her epitaph: O she was heavenly true!"
Ms. Vogel has taken the tragedy's three women – Desdemona, Emilia (Iago's wife and Desdemona's servant-confidante) and Bianca (a courtesan in love with Cassio) – and set them down to talk, gossip and squabble in the back room of the palace in Cyprus, where Othello has been dispatched to defend against the Turks; the time is the last day of Desdemona's life. Ms. Vogel describes the women's accents; respectively, "Upperclass. Very.", "Broad Irish Brogue", and "Stage Cockney" (which is odd, considering two of the women are Venetian and the third is from Cyprus). Emilia has become a scullery maid; Bianca runs a local brothel; and Desdemona is now a high-stepping trollop – very much the creature that Iago paints for Othello.
The plot of Desdemona's missing handkerchief (a love token from Othello, taken by Emilia and innocently passed along to Iago, who plants it on Cassio as proof of Desdemona's infidelity) is retained, and at play's end Desdemona has Emilia brush her hair in preparation for what will be her death bed. In between Emilia's coveting the handkerchief and the final scene is all Ms. Vogel's invention: Desdemona is bored with Othello and life in Cyprus, has secretly spent an evening being topped in Bianca's brothel, and plans to run away with her cousin Ludovico; Emilia now scrubs sheets and peels potatoes, despises Iago (whose penis is no bigger than her little finger) and also yearns to run away; and Bianca loves to give – and occasionally receive – a good thrashing (here, a "lam"). A hoof-pick (a round wooden stick with a hook in it, used for digging stones out of horses' hooves) is much fingered by D & B – but never, ever inserted anywhere, and the play's eye-opener is the former's bare bum (facing the audience) being lam'd by the latter, to both their enjoyment. The play's final revelation is that the prudish Emilia and the whoring Desdemona have a common link between them – even if be no bigger than one's little finger.
When I was in college and taking a playwriting course, student actors did a reading of a classmate's script, which was a send-up of the Frankie Avalon-Annette Funicello beach party movies of the early 1960s: "Frankie", as usual, put his arm around "Annette", who said, "Don't, Frankie – it makes me feel like such a WHORE!" (No, my classmate wasn't Christopher Durang.) That line genuinely shocked me – not because the beach party movies are works of art, but nowhere in those silly flicks is there anything sensual, let alone whorish, about the girl's character – and thus it was false to its source and little more than mud-slinging. I was similarly shocked while watching DESDEMONA; not from the "lamming" scene (which was quite tame, really: "Desdemona" wore micro-panties to avoid cracking a smile and "Bianca" lightly lam'd; the former's snowy cheeks betrayed not a flush of pink), but because Shakespeare's play IS a work of art (I viewed the 1965 Olivier film version just to make sure – and it IS). Call me old-fashioned, a purist, or simply a man, but I gained no new insights on OTHELLO from Ms. Vogel's making Desdemona into the trollop she is slandered to be (and, ironically, deserving of Othello's vengeance). All I can say is, those who happily applaud DESDEMONA are either tired of Shakespeare as Shakespeare or have been poisoned by Ms. Vogel in the same way that "honest" Iago poisons the Moor. (Would this play have been as revelatory had a man written it, or would he have been denounced as an exploiter of women?)
In her stage directions, Ms. Vogel asks for the following: "DESDEMONA was written in thirty cinematic "takes." The director is encouraged to create different pictures to simulate the process of filming: Change invisible camera angles, do jump cuts and repetitions, etc. There should be no blackouts between scenes." Why this gimmick, I don't know. So many playwrights now write with a camera's eye and what dissolves so easily on paper is not the same onstage when living, breathing bodies must suddenly switch from one activity to another. The Lab's production thus does red- and magenta-outs, where the audience can witness the actresses fetching new props and taking new positions in the half-light. The narrative is fragmentary, disjointed, when it really should have been written in one long "take", slowly tightening up to the denouement and sacrifice. But, then, I'm happy with OTHELLO just as it is – a tragic and deeply moving love story. Verdi's OTELLO did not rob it of its audience; fear not: it will also survive Ms. Vogel's play.
That said, the Lab gave us three good actresses, playing their roles with Elizabethan relish in Sean McIntosh's earthy, rough-hewn set: Jennifer Alison brought a bright "Oh, I SAY!" tone to Desdemona while vacillating from ninny to voluptuary (can she play the real Desdemona, I wonder?); Christine Hamel was a regular Vinegar Jo as Emilia (nag, nag, nag – "Mealy" is a one-note character); and, best of all, Hillary Alcuri as Bianca, a doxie straight out of the music 'all (to quote Max Beerbohm, the name of her muse is 'arriet). When Mss. Alison and Alcuri started to giggle and booze it up, they eerily resembled tabloid versions of Princess Di and Fergie – though I doubt that royal pair was anything like Ms. Vogel's creations.
* * *
In Samuel Beckett's KRAPP'S LAST TAPE, an elderly man ("Krapp") sits at a table in a basement, listening to spools of tape on a tape-recorder, in particular, Spool Five from Box Three, in which the audience hears his thoughts at the age of 39. There are more boxes upstage; it gradually dawns on the audience that Krapp has spent his entire life recording his thoughts at the expense of Life passing him by. The quiet little bombshell is in the spool's final lines, when the 39-year-old Krapp tells the elderly one:
"Perhaps my best years are gone. When there was a chance of happiness. But I wouldn't want them back. Not with the fire in me now. No, I wouldn't want them back."
Beckett shares the same fate as Chekhov – of being taken all too seriously, when Comedy was his forte. Granted, an odd, alienated Comedy that helped usher in the Theatre of the Absurd; still, Comedy all the same: the spirit of vaudeville is never far below the surface of a Beckett play, and it should come as no surprise when I say that Beckett is best served by clowns, or, at least, by actors who approach his works with tongue in cheek.
Reading a Beckett script is not the same as seeing it in a theatre (he's a dry read, and you might wonder where's he running to with the ball); but when performed by actors who are in tune with his music – especially all of those silences and obsessive attention to little details – his plays open out, grow flesh and can prove to be a rich evening of theatre. You can see the Art of Acting in a good Beckett performance, and no wonder actors love him and are grateful for the endless opportunities where they can display their craft.
The Lab has an excellent Krapp in one Douglas Griffin; a handsome old gentlemen with beetling brows shaped like the "S's" carved into violins. His Krapp is not a clown in the traditional sense (though such an interpretation could work), rather, he is clown-like because Time has made him so – that, and costumer Cindy Stone supplying him with elongated shoes a la Ringling Brothers/Barnum & Bailey. Considering much of KRAPP'S LAST TAPE consists of watching the man listening and reacting to his recorded voice, it was a pleasure to watch the fleeting emotions passing over Mr. Griffin's face: irony, sadness, wonder, hints of second childhood on the way – a great performance; a world in a drop of water.
Unless there are two versions of the script – the published vs. the acting editions – director Samuel Reich has changed two of the play's comic bits (and which I had been looking forward to seeing). In the Eating of the Bananas, the script has Krapp peeling a banana, sticking it in his mouth and pausing for a moment and then, as if suddenly remembering, starting to munch on it. He almost slips on the peel and then pushes it off the stage and into the pit with his foot (thus adding to the illusion that KRAPP is a vaudeville piece, after all). The Second Banana is peeled, also stuck in a mouth for a moment, and then tucked into a pocket as if it were a cigar. For this production, Mr. Griffin bites down on the First Banana, causing it to fall to the floor. Mr. Griffin picks it up, studies it, munches on it left to right as if it were an ear of corn and then tosses the "cob" over his shoulder. The Second Banana, peeled but with the skin still on it, is inserted into Mr. Griffin's mouth. He bites down and the bananas falls into his hands cupped below. He carefully folds up the flaps of the skin like a parachute and inserts it into a pocket.
The script's second bit is Krapp repeatedly disappearing into the darkness behind him, from which we hear a POP! He then returns, wiping his mouth. At the Lab, the bottles are in crates in the semi-darkness at stage left. The one light onstage is the bulb hanging over the table (stage right), and thus in order to get a drink, Mr. Griffin unscrews the bulb, crosses to stage left, screws it into a socket and gives the wall a kick to turn it on. This action is repeated several times. It does pad out the evening, but that is not necessarily a good thing.
Again, Sean McIntosh has designed a simple but evocative set – Krapp's basement was appropriately dingy and timeless – a former bomb shelter? And near the end of the performance, in the half-light, one of the largest cockroaches I have ever seen scuttled along before those of us in the front row. It couldn't have picked a more appropriate set in which to make its entrance. Ah, only in the theatre….