On Oct. 6, the NIU School of Theatre and Dance will open its 2016-2017 Studio Series season with Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief, playwright Paula Vogel’s version of the Shakespearian tragedy, Othello.
The play follows three women, Desdemona, Emilia and Bianca, which Vogel has reimagined from minor character status in the Shakespeare play into the central characters of her story. More importantly, the playwright takes Desdemona and the famous speculation, “Is Desdemona innocent?” and answers it in the negative–Desdemona is not innocent at all.
According to the play’s director, NIU faculty member Rachel Cooper, the story portrays Desdemona, Othello’s wife, as the opposite of Shakespeare’s version. She says, “If (Desdemona) was perfect, chaste and virginal, I don’t think it would be that interesting… she’s a more fully developed, flawed, interesting character.”
Vogel wanted to capture what was really going on in the background of Shakespeare’s world, Cooper says. The original story revolves around the male characters and the women aren’t important as anything other than wives and props, or merely, “…accessories to the greater story of men.”
Cooper says Vogel’s play is the story of women, from the women’s point of view. Her female characters have been given depth and intriguing characteristics, in contrast to the simple, innocent bystanders they were in Othello.
“Even Shakespeare’s main character, Othello, isn’t present at all,” she says, “other than being mentioned by the other characters here and there.”
The female characters struggle through a time when they are oppressed by men and in search of their sexuality, according to Cooper. Desdemona especially is the most promiscuous woman in the story, most likely as a reaction to how she is treated by the men in her life.
Cooper describes some of the content of the play as shocking and not fully accepted by today’s society. There are many concepts in the story that are still considered by many people to be inappropriate to talk about, especially among women.
The most important idea Cooper believes that audiences should take away from this story is that modern society has come a long way from where it was on gender roles and sexuality, but, “…we still have a long way to go.”
“It’s easy to sort of sit back and judge people, like, ‘Oh, back in the past, they were so misinformed and ridiculous,’” she says, “but these double-standards are still real, and sexual violence is still real, and overdetermined gender identity is still real.”
Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief runs Oct. 6-9. Performances are at Diversions Lounge Theatre in the Holmes Student Center, on the NIU DeKalb campus.
Performances are at 7:30 p.m. on Thursday through Saturday, and at 2 p.m. on Saturday and Sunday. All general admission tickets are $ 7. Ticket reservations or additional information is available by contacting the NIU School of Theatre and Dance box office at 815-753-1600, or online at the School of Theatre and Dance website at niu.edu/theatre.