Agenda: Desdemona, A Play About a Handkerchief at Post 5 Theater, then Bible Club for cocktails
I love plays that highlight the intricacies of women’s lives. I probably sound sexist, but men are so what you see it what you get. Whereas women have more layers to their personalities and motivations. Perhaps I am being narcissistic, but I think women are the more interesting and complex gender, making for great theater. Apparently playwright Paula Vogel felt the same way when she wrote, Desdemona, A Play About a Handkerchief. I got so entrenched with the story, I forgot the playwright uses Shakespeare’s play, Othello, as the foundation for her play. The characters are so well-developed, the acting so fine, and the story so provocative that one does not need to be a disciple of Shakespeare to find meaning in or understanding of Desdemona. Vogel is simply bringing the women of Othello to the forefront and gives the viewer a behind the scenes look at a possible narrative of their lives. Since the story is not told in Shakespearian vernacular, Vogel’s narrative is much more user friendly. By the way, was it intentional by Shakespeare or am I demonstrating schizophrenic tendencies when I point the word “demon” in the middle of the name of Desdemona? After all, Shakespeare loved puns and irony. Hmm.
Anyways, this is a tale of three women. But it would be shortsighted to say it is only about women since, often, a story about women coincides with a story about their relationships with men. Here, the lead character, Desdemona (played by Elizabeth Parker) is the bored, dissatisfied, and aristocratic wife of Othello, a general. Do not mistake Desdemona’s beguiling charm and beauty as trivial. This is a woman who knows her power and place in society, and yet she is a sympathetic victim of her husband’s brutality and control at home. Desdemona’s God-fearing, yet conniving Irish Catholic servant, Emilia (played by Lucy Paschall), is equally dissatisfied with her husband who, it is revealed, has cheated on her. But she stays with him, hoping his possible job promotion will eventually be a financial means to an end. The final character, Bianca (played by Shannon Mastel), plays the crass cockney-speaking neighborhood prostitute. But her defiant and independent bravado belie a desire for monogamy and intimacy. Each character wants something the other character has. Desdemona wants freedom. Bianca wants protection. Emilia wants financial security.
Despite the ensuing drama, Vogel finds room for humor in their tragedies and you will never find three more appealing women on stage. These actors each perform their roles so well that an aristocrat, maid, and prostitute become surprisingly relatable and sympathetic. It feels regrettable that none of these female characters, because of the sociocultural rules and ruts they are in, will ever be able to own the lives they desire. This, I believe, is Vogel’s desired take home message.
After the play, it was time for cocktails and a bite to eat at Bible Club. Finally. A club that wants me to be a member. Sign me up! This is a special little jewel of a bar. Located in one of my favorite Portland neighborhoods, Sellwood, Bible Club is a model of a kind of secret society for liquid spirits during the prohibition era. The exterior of this place is a nondescript bungalow except for a small glowing green light from an upstairs window to tell the patron the party has started. Inside, I felt like I had entered a private Victorian boudoir, with Dixieland music in the background seemingly celebrating my arrival. Everywhere one looks, there is some interesting historical piece of furniture or decor referencing the prohibition era. It feels intimate and comfortable. No austere modern pick up bar here.
If the ambiance had not already sold me, the food and drink would certainly bring me back. There is a fantastic cocktail list with all sorts of magical spirits and mysterious flavors. I ordered the Pennicillin. With a flavor thick with smoke, lemon, and ginger, it was probably the best cocktail I have had in the last year. Cocktails are all served in beautiful antique class. (I have always believed that everything tastes better when served with beautiful dishes). To eat, I ordered the Roasted Mushroom Mac and Cheese. If I’m not mistaking, this was made with the more flavorful—and expensive—maitake mushrooms. Simply and deliciously prepared—not dripping in cheese sauce—in a reasonable, not gigantic portion size. I am believer in Bible Club and I want to spread the good news. I have been saved!
After seeing Othello for the first time I was intrigued by the upcoming Desdemona, a play about a handkerchief at Post 5. I had no idea what it was about, but I trust in Post5 and the title was good enough for me.
I commented in my Othello post that Shakespeare was not the best at plotting and having a relationship fall apart and lead to murder/suicide over a handkerchief, a handkerchief mind you, seemed the lamest of plot devices. Perhaps a riff based on Othello and the handkerchief would add to what was the worst of MacGuffins.
Desdemona is a behind the scenes of Othello, worthy of a VH1 documentary, complete with sex, lies and betrayal, lacking only coked out binges to be Fleetwood Mac. It concerns the interactions of three of the protagonists of Othello, Desdemona, her maid Emilia, and the Madam of the local bordello, Bianca. You need know nothing about Othello to enjoy this excellent play but having recently seen Othello I kept juxtaposing the scenes from Othello with those of Desdemona, knowing that reflections in Othello will end in Desdemona’s death. So while often funny, the play is ultimately a tragedy with the foreknowledge of the plays end.
The Desdemona in this play is not the Desdemona of Othello, the latter a bland goody-two-shoes, the former a semi-pro prostitute who wants to see the world and is using men as her vehicle.
The setting is a mash up of a 16th century harum and an English home, the actors dressed in Oriental clothes but acting more like a English comedy of manners, with each actress having a different English accent. It was an odd combination, but it works.
What is the play about? One theme is the powerlessness of women due to their gender and class and how they are trapped in their roles. But, ironically, how these three women then recapitulate these same class hierarchies in their own relationships with those who should be their allies. And the damn handkerchief? It is still a Macguffin and the silliness of its importance to Othello and Othello is commented upon.
The performances were the best we have seen yet at Post5, three powerful, engaging and funny actresses that draw you into to their lives, knowing all the while that Desdemona will slide against her well into tragedy.
The play is a reminder why I enjoy theater more than movies. Some of the best food I have had has been simple dishes, like a roast chicken, executed flawlessly. (As an aside, I hate it when the menu says a dish is “cooked to perfection.” What are the rest of the dishes? Poorly prepared slop? I expect my food to be cooked to perfection. It is what I am paying for.). Excellent theater, like Desdemona, comes down to the language of the playwright and the skill of the actresses in interpreting that language.
This production succeeds on both counts. You have until May 28th, do not pass up the opportunity.
Afterwords it was Bible Club again.
I have little to add over the last review. Great artesian drinks and solid French inspired bar food. This time I had the Duck confit and beans. The duck has a perfectly crunchy skin and the meat nice and tender. This time it was the Tipperary (Redbreast 12 year, BC house vermouth, and green chartreuse) followed by the Bonded Apricot Swizzle. I like to try drinks that look outside of my comfort zone, it was good but I preferred the Tipperary. Give me a whiskey based drink anytime, although for the life of me I cannot think of way to make a pun that includes the song and the drink.
This time I did ask why the Pennicillin has two ‘n’s, thinking there was some sort of interesting backstory: it was invented in Pennsylvania or some such. Nope. Typo. Oops. There was a Cajun restaurant in Seaside whose menu said Laissez les bons temps brouler (Let the good times burn) rather than the classic Laissez les bons temps rouler the Cajun expression meaning “Let the good times roll”. They were also nonplussed when the typo was pointed out. Sorry guys. One extra ‘n’ notwithstanding, it is still the best bar for drinks and atmosphere in Portland.
While we were there the actress who played Emilia was at the bar. It was odd. In the play she seemed well over 6 feet tall, a commanding giant of a performer, as did all the actresses. In real life she is but a slip of a girl. How did she shrink? The power of a great performance I suppose.
Addendum to Kerry’s Post
Not only does Desdemona contain demon, Othello has hell. Hmmmmmmm. I am inclined to see it as coincidence.