By Lolita Chakrabarti.
Directed by Michael Menendian.
At Raven Theatre, Chicago.
Historical backstage drama tells a little know story.
Kudos to Raven Theatre for finding and mounting Red Velvet by British playwright Lolita Chakrabarti first produced in 2012 in London. This is a play based on actual historical figures. It is the story of the first African-American actor to play Othello for two performances at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden in London in 1833. When the famous Shakespearean actor Edmund Kean becomes ill, company manager Pierre LaPotre (Mtthew Klinger) brings on his friend and well qualified veteran actor Ira Aldridge 1807- 1867 (Brandon Greenhouse) to play Othello. This was a daring choice by LaPorte since a black man had never before played Othello on a major London theatre. 1833 was a riotous time in London with the abolition of slavery in England and various social and political reforms being enacted. Change at all levels was being challenged.
LaPorte, a Frenchman saw this bold casting choice as needed. He initially got strong resistance from the traditionalist cast members. And as the rushed rehearsal demonstrated, Aldridge had modern ideas on how to play Othello utilizing physicality and strong emotional appeals. His leading lady, Ellen Tree (Tuckie White0 was open to Aldridge’s new acting ideas. Charles Kean (Tyler Rich) resisted Aldridge’s tactics from jealousy, conservationism and blatant racism.
But after the first performance, most of the cast and the audience loved the new take on Othello and Aldridge’s performance. But the critics and the Covent Garden directors were extremely negative toward Aldridge condemning his performance and blatantly making nasty personal racial slurs toward Aldridge. LaPorte was forced to remove Aldridge form playing Othello. Aldridge possessed strong acting methods and a power personality making him hard to work with especially in a time of social change. Aldridge NEVER played on a major London stage again. After playing minor theaters all over England, he spent several decades playing in France, Poland, Germany and Russia. He dies in Poland in 1867 at age fifty.
Playwright Lolita Chakrabarti deftly opens Aldridge’s story in Lotz, Poland around the time of Aldridge’s death. We meet Halina Wozniak (the terrific Sophia Menendian who plays several roles) who tries to interview the prima donna Aldridge in Poland in 1867. This works nicely for us to hear Aldridge’s backstory.
We then flashback to London’s Covent Garden in 1833 when Aldridge is cast as Othello. These scenes detail the artistic biases of the Shakespeare players as well as racial attitudes of some of the cast. These well written scenes and the strong performances by Tyler Rich, Matthew Klingler were engaging and effective.
But Red Velvet is truly Brandon Greenhouse’s play His charisma commanded the stage. His presentation of Aldridge’s acting technique as well as his power personality was honest. He allows for Aldridge’s vulnerability as we see that often one’s strength is also their weakness. Bitterness takes over Aldridge as he realizes that in 19th Century England, he will not be accepted as a equal person much less a respected classical stage actor.
Director Michael Menendian has cast this drama well. His eight person cast nicely move from one character to another with fine accents (and languages). But Brndon Greenhouse carries the show with his dynamic performance. Red Velvet is a tremendous enjoyable play that tells a little know but true story. i never knew about Ira Aldringe but I do now. See https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Ira_Aldridge – then get to Raven Theatre to see Red Velvet.
Date Reviewed: October 4, 2016.
For more info checkout the Red Velvet page at theatreinchicago.com.
At Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark, Chicago, IL, call 773-338-2177, www.raventheatre.com, tickets $43 online, $46 at the theatre, $41 seniors, $38 teachers, $22 students & military, Thursdya thry Saturdays at 7;30 pm, Sundays at 3 pm, running time is 2 hours, 10 minutes with intermission, through November 27, 2016.