The Swellesley Report: Goodnight Desdemona, Good Morning Juliet

By Deborah Brown

June 14, 2016

As you’ll recall, in Shakespeare’s tragedies Romeo and Juliet and Othello, Juliet, facts-ignorant and hasty, stabs herself to death, while in Othello, the duped and needlessly jealous title character smothers his slandered wife, Desdemona. Oh, if only everybody had slowed down a bit and gotten the turn of events straight, what might have been for these ill-fated characters?

In Wellesley Repertory Theatre’s Goodnight Desdemona, (Good Morning Juliet), playing at Wellesley College’s Ruth Nagel Jones Theater through June, playwright Ann-Marie MacDonald asks just that. Through the miracle of time travel, MacDonald allows the meddling hand of of Constance Ledbelly, a modern-day academic and frumpy cat-lover who is disrespected and dismissed by both her students and her colleagues, to stay the hands that would self-harm and murder. What results is a comedy, as both Juliet and Desdemona turn out to be, as Constance always suspected, a couple of trouble-makers who refuse to be kept down by the strictures of their time.

Juliet is played by Wellesley College rising-junior Lillian Odekirk, who perfectly conveys a young teen-ager’s knowledge of the power of her own youth and beauty, and her growing horror that (now that she didn’t commit suicide after all), she is saddled to Romeo for life and he is, frankly, rather dull. She and Romeo (MacMillan Leslie) bicker with and taunt each other, threatening to run to their respective daddies and tattle, even though it appears that now that the fair Juliet is wedded and bedded, the Capulet-Montague clan is so over fretting about this union.

Meanwhile, it turns out that Desdemona absolutely adores blood and gore, living vicariously through the warriors on the battlefield. Sadly, the only way poor Desdemona can participate in war is by occasionally scouring the battlefield for the odd leftover decapitated warrior whose head she can pick up by the hair and swing around for a little while, horrifying the less action-oriented Constance. These are the things that happen when young maidens become bored with their immature husbands,  and blood-thirsty wives are without careers of their own and largely left to fill their time as best they might.

Actors’ Equity Association member Woody Gaul was kept busy playing the odious and self-congratulatory Professor Night, who uses both Constance’s work and heart to advance his own career ambitions, as well as Iago and Tybalt. He infused all three characters with their own personalities and foibles, and because he played each one so differently, I never got confused over which tall, dark, and handsome one was which. I know, it’s called acting for a reason, but Gaul does it so much better than most who are charged with such multi-tasking.

Victoria George rounds out the leads, playing Desdemona with a gleam in her eye and a too-eager willingness to believe palace gossip. To the blood-and-guts hungry Desdemona, so much the better should the gossip lead to murder most fun. I most recently saw George in the winter production of The House of Blue Leaves, in which she played yet another trouble-making character, and it is no wonder she was cast in that direction again. She is just plain good at it, and yes, I’m a fan. Gleeful cruelty is her specialty as she sashays around the stage, commanding the attention of all, who had certainly better stay on the ball if they want to survive her “friendship” and “love”.

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The set designs by Janie E. Howland, who has been teaching Scenic Design at Wellesley College since 2006, expressed Constance’s university office as a space lined with books, as one would expect. On closer examination, most of the titles showed that the books in Constance’s domain covered war, deceit, mystery, and politics. The books and their pages then appear to open, break apart, and take flight into an unknown space, a portal which Constance will find soon find herself entering.

On the other side of that portal Constance, her beauty hidden by dowdy clothes and a lack of confidence, finds herself revered as a seer, an oracle, a visionary, a complicated woman of substance, and best of all (whether true or not, but you know how rumors get started), a virgin. In this strange land, both men and women romantically pursue her. It’s a place where her knowledge of the fictional characters she has studied all of  her adult life is admired, and in this atmosphere of awe, her confidence grows. Played with passion and depth by former Wellesley College student, current Wellesley College lecturer, and Actors’ Equity Association member Marta Rainer, she sees to it that her character believably moves from heartbroken nobody to lauded heroine.

The rest of the cast, directed by the experienced and talented Nora Hussey and played mostly with a combination of Actors’ Equity Association professionals and Wellesley college students, kept things lively with flawless comedic timing. On the minus side when the play was over, that’s it folks, it was over. The actors exited to enthusiastic applause, and while the curtain was still moving behind them, the music went abruptly silent and the lights shot up to full wattage, glaring their good-bye and get out. With the very essence of the actors still hanging in the air, but no second bow forthcoming, the audience reluctantly shuffled away.

That anti-climax aside, Goodnight Desdemona is a great way to kick off a summer of arts appreciation. The audience at the small Ruth Nagel Jones Theatre was given a rollicking comedy and a happy ending — things that aren’t normally associated with the names Juliet and Desdemona, but are most definitely associated with a relaxed and well-spent summer of fun.