'Desdemona' shines comic light on strong women

9:41:12 AM CDT - Wednesday, February 14, 2007

By Shannon Littlejohn

Pity poor Desdemona, the wife of Shakespeare's Othello. Or maybe not. What if the woman was far more culpable in her own demise than even Shakespeare knew? That's the comic premise of WSU's Second Stage production of "Desdemona," subtitled by its Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright, Paula Vogel, "A Play about a Handkerchief."

The action swirls around three female characters: Desdemona, her servant Emilia (wife of Iago) and Bianca (lover of Cassio and now a "professional" working woman of Cyprus).

Student director Adrienne Matzen and stage manager Megan Marie Richardson agree that, although it's a strong female play – "it's fairly rare to give the girls a chance," Richardson said – "Desdemona" will appeal to a broad audience with its themes of sexual conquest, jealousy and intrigue.

"It’s kind of a black comedy," said Matzen, a senior in theater performance, "and, although it is a little bit of a chick play, it's a play that’s funny."

Matzen said among the many bawdy bits of dialogue are a lot of jokes about, well, male anatomy. What guy doesn’t like that, she asked? Richardson said there is also a great fight scene and other action on stage includes some "surprises," prompting her to laugh.

There are heavier messages in the play, however, about women’s struggles for independence and a sense of self.

"It’s very frank about the unromantic side of sexuality, a lighthearted look, yet there is a dark center to it," said Matzen. "We basically follow Desdemona through moments of the last day of her life."

At the end of the play, she said, everybody knows how it is going to end. "The joy isn’t to see what happens but how it happens."

Vogel's "Desdemona" has played to good reviews since its debut in 1979. She is best known, however, for her Pulitzer Prize-winning play "How I Learned To Drive," which deals with child sexual abuse and incest. Her play "The Baltimore Waltz" won the Obie award for Best Play in 1992; other plays include "Hot 'N' Throbbing," "And Baby Makes Seven," "The Mineola Twins" and "The Oldest Profession."

"Vogel is very good at drawing you into a play by making you laugh and have fun," Matzen said. "Then all of a sudden, as she does in 'Desdemona,' she switches on you to make you consider something that you wouldn’t normally consider."

For Richardson, a senior in technical theater, the all-student theater experience of Second Stage has been both fun and a good learning experience. "It's great to get to work with our peers on a creative level," she said.

The cast features Kim Liebenberg as Desdemona, Terrie Allen as Emilia and Camille Schmierer as Bianca. The crew consists of assistant stage manager Sarah Streck, tech director Eric Walker; scenic designer Evan Schmidt, lighting designer Nick Smith, costume designer Shannon Smith, props designer A.J. Kellison and sound designer Cody Davis.

"We're kind of doing a mix of period costume and modern for the whole production with set and the props," said Richardson. "The set has aesthetic complexity; it’s very cool."

The Second Stage cast and crew have had all the freedom they could hope for in making the production of “Desdemona” their own.

"Faculty are there to guide us, to challenge us if we have questions," said Matzen, "but nobody has said no to me, or to my designers — except for me, but that's the job."

"Desdemona" is rated PG.

Second Stage's "Desdemona" will be presented at 7:30 p.m. Wednesday, Feb. 21-Sunday, Feb. 25 with matinee performances at 2 p.m. Saturday and Sunday, Feb. 24-25, at the Welsbacher Theatre in the Eugene M. Hughes Metropolitan Complex, 5015 E. 29th St. N. General admission is $8 with discounts available. Tickets are available through the College of Fine Arts Box Office, 978-3233, or at the venue one hour before each performance. Rated PG

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