How lucky we are to have the Brazen-Faced Varlets in our midst. The female-forward company’s scrappy productions are often performed in the back room of Rust Belt Books, a Bohemian cave of literary wonder and secondhand love. Their plays often rewrite or re-imagine classics, passing old tales off to new audiences like avid readers share their earmarked books. Their work makes me think of ancient acts of storytelling, huddled and impromptu, communal and political, funny and wicked.
Their latest, Paula Vogel’s “Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief,” is the company’s sixth production to dismantle a William Shakespeare play. “Ramona and Juliet,” their premiere production, in 2006, parodied the romance as a lesbian comedy. Gender is as much a manipulative here as sexual orientation. One way or another, the Varlets’ work redistributes the wealth and restores power to the otherwise misrepresented. And does so, presumably, with a budget of pennies.
Vogel’s play is in trusty hands with director Lara Haberberger at the helm. Vogel’s take on “Othello’s” three women is like adventurous fan fiction, and Haberberger’s treatment is just as dreamy.
Desdemona, Othello’s wife, is unleashed as a romantic vixen, a part-time prostitute who lives for, and off of, her passions. Emelia, Desdemona’s conservative maid and Iago’s wife, is cautious to her boss’s liberated ways, maybe even jealous. Bianca, another “woman of the night,” is a loud and dangerous inspiration, a true original in an era of molds. Conversation is spent debating roles and value in their homes and in the world. Just what, exactly, is a woman to do in this world, the play asks.
Between Vogel and Haberberger, the performance unfolds with intriguing choices. Scenes are brief, some short breaths and some deep gasps. They’re broken intermittently by soft blackouts underscored by a cool blue moonlight. Are these selective memories? Flashing reflections before death? I wondered many times what we were missing in the negative space between these vignettes, some of which pass without dialogue. Such a poetic way to wrap the play’s rhetorical voice.
These theatrics work despite, or perhaps because of, this tiny space, for which small is too small an adjective. The dozen or so people in the room—cast, crew and audience—really do share a breath. Theater usually only does this in metaphor, but in here it’s a refreshing reality. These conversations get tense, and at one point, physical. During a rowdy fight scene, in which the actors use household objects around as weapons, their rage was palpable, almost tangible. What a thrilling moment.
The cast of three hold their own quite well. I wish some of their performances were turned down just a bit to fit the immediacy of the room, their relationships feel real and worthy of their drama. Stefanie Warnick is a seductive Desdemona with juvenile entitlement and put-on confidence. (She reminded me of Sarah Michelle Gellar’s Kathryn in “Cruel Intentions,” the modern twist on “Les Liasions Dangereuses,” of which this play also reminds me.) Warnick layers her various emotions of strength around fear, and gives a bold performance.
So does Caroline Parzy-Sanders as Emilia, but in a very different way. On the surface, Parzy-Sanders embodies the classical dowdy maid: submissive and dutiful, but snarky and truthful. Her accent, a scant Scottish, is lighter than it could be to reinforce her traditional roots, and her reactions are sometimes too forced. But her presence is known, and when all bets are off, her voice is heard, loud and clear.
But the real joy here comes from Jeni Arroyo, our Bianca. Arroyo’s performance epitomizes the value of the Brazen-Faced Varlets voice in our local theater scene. She puts it all out there (and so does her costume), rightfully twisting the relationship between Desdemona and Emilia. Things could be smoother in her delivery, more moments could be taken in, but she injects so much energy and originality that I was happy to jump on this ride. Another fine, if unexpected, production from this fearless, unapologetic and brazen company.
“Desdemona: A Play About a Handkerchief”
3 stars (out of 4)
Presented by Brazen-Faced Varlets through Oct. 29 at Rust Belt Books, 415 Grant St. Performances are at 2 and 8 p.m. Thursdays through Sundays. Tickets are $15 to $1, plus Pay-What-You-Can performances. Visit varlets.org