Paula Vogel won a Pulitzer Prize for How I Learned to Drive, her 1997 play about child sexual abuse. And she got an Obie Award for 1992's The Baltimore Waltz, a tribute to her brother, a victim of AIDS. Prior to both superior works, she wrote Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief. Although it's fairly well known now, it doesn't equal them in drama, interest, character or compassion.
Thorough displays of talent by the director and student actors in a production for University of Pittsburgh Repertory Theatre didn't overcome or improve the limited material on opening night.
The title could tell you something; it sounds ironic. And consider that Vogel calls it a "rip-off to [sic] the infamous play Shakespeare the Sadist by Wolfgang Bauer." Mimicking Bauer, she calls for the director to stage scenes in cinematic takes. Who the hell is Bauer? And who cares? So you could call the thing an intellectual exercise, like, say, Tom Stoppard's overrated Rosencrantz and Guildenstern Are Dead. Both scripts show characters existing beyond what life Shakespeare gave them, but whose ends are foregone. It's an approach that minimizes action and story development. Moreover, the writers, to be effective and entertaining, must speak to people not knowledgeable about the source material.
Desdemona, Othello's bride, lost a prized handkerchief. Iago got his wife, Emilia, to steal it, and planted it on Cassio to imply Desdemona's infidelity. Then Cassio gave it to his mistress, Bianca. So when Othello asks Desdemona to produce the handkerchief, she can't and, in jealous rage, he kills her.
Admittedly, Shakespeare's device seems frail fabric. But while Vogel implies that, she spends more time exploring women's limited roles in a male-dominated society. Thus, she has Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca not doing much more than gabbing -- another flaw, even if she fills out the characters some.
She also calls for the women to speak with Irish, Cockney and upper-class British accents. Although that might be considered good training for student actors such as these, the result can muddy the text, even if what they are saying seems shallow to begin with.
On opening night, Bonnie Doyle, Meg Stiles and Joanna Getting gave their roles vigorous and credible definition, and director Julie Costa-Malcolm effectively put them through their paces. Still, it seems unlikely that much more can be done with this unsatisfying play in its short run, or when an alternate student cast takes over for three performances.
Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief continues through Sun., Nov. 18. Henry Heymann Theatre, Stephen Foster Memorial, Forbes Avenue at Bigelow, Oakland. 412-624-7529 or www.play.pitt.edu