Hanky Panky

DESDEMONA: A PLAY ABOUT A HANDKERCHIEF by Paula Vogel, directed by Sue Miner, with Brooke Johnson,.

by Paula Vogel, directed by Sue
Miner, with Brooke Johnson, Anita La
Selva and Sarah Neville. Presented by
Portrait Productions at Artword Alternative
(75 Portland). Runs to February 17,
Tuesday-Saturday 8 pm, matinee Sunday
2:30 pm.$16-$20, Sunday pwyc.
416-366-7723. Rating: NNN Rating: NNN

creating a back story for a Shakespeare classic can be a dicey exercise, but Paula Vogel’s Desdemona manages to be both exuberantly funny and chillingly prescient about the women in the life of the jealous Moor Othello. It also makes some telling points about women in contemporary society.Set on the day of Desdemona’s death, the play brings together Othello’s wife, her servant Emilia and the prostitute Bianca. The colloquial script is full of surprises, beginning with a Desdemona who’s 180 degrees from the shy, virtuous wife in Shakespeare. Here, she has befriended Bianca and taken her place in a brothel’s darkness with more than a few men.

It’s Emilia who’s strait-laced, moral and disapproving, while the bawdy Bianca seems to be a full-fledged individual who’s not defined by the men around her. Vogel gets in some nice shots at male chauvinism, the lot of women — especially in a social pecking order based on rank — and unhappy relationships, but she’s smart to let the Bard’s tragedy, predicated in part on a lost handkerchief, close in like a noose at the end.

Director Sue Miner’s production catches most of the fun and irony of the play, despite some awkward scene transitions. Brooke Johnson’s righteous Emilia, stuck in a marriage defined by hate rather than love, conveys hurt, ferocity and fear with her steely gaze, and Sarah Neville’s Cockney-accented Bianca has a touch of innocence along with her sexual worldliness. In the title role, Anita La Selva is properly elegant of accent and foul of language, but her Desdemona, a bored woman looking for freedom in a patriarchal world, is emotionally bland.

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