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Hits and Misses in These Variations on Shakespeare's Othello and Desdemona

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The set-up: The glories of Shakespeare run so deep that endless variations can be played on his themes and characters. Trebuchet Players, one of Houston's youngest theater companies, present two one-acts that spin his great tragedy Othello. Waiting for Othello is a gleeful drunk, stumbling about like a sloshed frat boy; Desdemona, A Play about a Handkerchief, a serious feminist deconstruction, uses better quality alcohol.

The execution: Commissioned for Trebuchet from local playwright Bryan Maynard, Waiting flits all over, a Monty Python-esque skit in need of more substance. MORE? Huzzah!! Embedded inside Maynard's play is a drinking game. Every time a character says "Moor" or synonym "more," the audience raises a beer toast. The "mores" come fast and furious, and the gradual ensuing buzz lightens the play. However, even the wonders of St. Arnold Brewing Company can only do so much.

It's Aaron Echegaray as Iago who gives this play its wings. He deepens his baritone into a Froggie the Gremlin croak and twists his body into a contorted limp. He scowls and plots, and hustles across the stage like a bad-tempered creepy crawly. In the midst of the sophomore high jinks, his Iago is the real thing. Set against Taylor Wildman's fey Cassio and Jonathan Moonen's college boy Rodrigo (and a drag serving wench straight out of John Cleese), Echegaray pops off the stage. Would we could see him in the original. Maynard's slight comedy may be constructed out of balsa wood, but Echegaray gives it the heft of a B-57.

Desdemona is an early work from distinguished Pulitzer Prize-winning playwright Paula Vogel (Baltimore Waltz, How I Learned to Drive, Civil War Christmas). Even so, it's full of mature stage technique as she takes the three women in Shakespeare's tragedy and compares and contrasts. It's a state-of-consciousness study in gender politics, feminism, erotic desire.

The play takes place in Cyprus, before the newly married couple relocates to Venice. Desdemona (Tyrrell Woolbert in tony Noel Coward accent) is not the Bard's sweet bride, but a closeted hussy, who moonlights every Tuesday in the brothel where Bianca (Leighza Walker, with Cockney accent) plies her trade. Serving maid Emilia (Karen Schlag, using an Irish brogue thick as oatmeal), mired in her loveless marriage, hopes to wheedle a promotion from Desdemona for her husband Iago so she can use the money to flee. Sex and social position intertwine in Vogel's dissection. Short scenes loop back on themselves; time seems to bend as it moves inexorably forward. All three women are stuck in a male world where sex is their liberation. Wanting as much as she can, insatiable Desdemona takes Othello as a lover for the thrill of his his "otherness." From the lower class, faithful Emilia can't wait to get out from under unfeeling Iago; rowdy Bianca finds love with Cassio but gets slapped down by Desdemona's drunken revelation. Female camaraderie can't hold fast against social norms or the striving of the heart.

Vogel's one-act drags its feet a little, for we quickly lose sympathy for upper-crust Desdemona and her quest to be filled with the world, even if its a nice metaphor for her constant tricking. The Bianca/Desdemona scenes pique our prurience with light S&M and lesbian frisson, but they seem tacked on instead of intrinsic. We yearn to return to faithful, clear-eyed Emilia. She knows she's stuck - in society, in bed - plodding through life until her husband dies and she's free at last.

Kathy Drum's set is a colorful, fractured abstract painting (the characters' state of mind, perhaps?), while Malinda Beckham's costumes are playfully anachronistic - Woolbert looks smashing in that clinging emerald sheath. But the play isn't helped by the white scrim placed between us and the stage, upon which are projected videos (falling handkerchiefs, an eyeball, fractured electronic images) during the scenes changes. The night I attended, one of the projectors was on the fritz, but the problem isn't the images, but that milky scrim that comes between us and the actors. It's like watching the action through fog - lots of fog. Vogel wants to draw us in, that scrim keeps us out. The distancing continues with the musical accompaniment, played live by Aaron Cook, that uses an ironic, wide vaudeville swath from "The March of the Marionettes" (the famous Alfred Hitchcock TV theme) to "When Irish Eyes Are Smiling." If there's much method to it, it eluded me.

The verdict: Although these minor works, directed by Kathy Drum, spin Othello in ways Shakespeare never thought of, the pairing of frat boy humor and feminist thesis doesn't send him spinning. He would appreciate the contemporary rethinking, although he said it all first. Waiting for Othello and Desdemona, A Play About a Handkerchief. Through September 20. Trebuchet Players at Company OnStage, 536 Westbury Square. Purchase tickets online at www.companyonstage.org or call 318-423-0281. $10.

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