Red Velvet, by Lolita Chakrabarti. Directed by Daniela Varon. Reviewed by J. Peter Bergman.
Kelley Curran, Ben Chase, Joe Tapper, Ravin Patterson, Christianna Nelson; photo: Enrico Spada
"That's the beauty of being an actor - just play your part, and go home."
John Douglas Thompson; photo: Enrico Spada
No matter what you read, or what you hear about this play, "Red Velvet," now playing at Shakespeare and Company in Lenox, MA, it is not, most emphatically not, about racism. It is not about prejudice and it is not about limitations. It is a play about being an actor and what that means to the actor. Based, I believe, on a true story (certainly the people were real in the time presented here) about which less is really known than we might believe, this is a story about a 19th century American actor who made a career in Europe before meeting a tragic death in Lodz, Poland. The play is almost about what it means to be American, to be independent and smart, to be overly aware of one's own potential and to be cocksure, that very American trait which makes us both envied and reviled by Europeans.
In 1833 Black American Ira Aldridge substitutes for an ailing British stage star, Edmund Kean, in the role of Othello on the London stage. It is not his debut in the role, but it is a major appearance with a troupe of actors considered by many to be the most important in the world. His presence among them is not taken well by Kean's son Charles who refuses to act Iago across from an actual black man playing the Moor, nor is his work considered acceptable by most of the London critics. Aldridge moves on and has a career in Europe acting in classical theater roles until his sudden death in 1867 while playing King Lear. He was sixty years old. This is not a story about race. It is a story about ego and acting and choices.
John Douglas Thompson plays Ira Aldridge as a man who understands his considerable talents and wants to show them to the world. Married to a white Scottish woman, he walks in the world as free man with talent can walk. He presents himself respectably; he honors the abilities of his co-workers; he suffers the pangs of insecurity that an actor knows in any important role; he pushes his own limits with each performance; he believes in the rightness and fairness of his profession and the world he inhabits. Thompson is brilliant in presenting these aspects of this man and his scenes as Othello are revelatory as he brings a technique that is totally 20th century in its simplicity and humanity to a theatrical milieu that tends to exaggeration and emoting. It is very clear in his performance at the end of the first act that he is brilliantly out of step in this environment. There is one other thing that works against him: he cannot, or will not, take direction that he feels diminishes his interpretation. This is his downfall and when it comes Thompson gives new strength to the role, enlightening us instantly as to his inner core and his eventual madness.
Thompson is surrounded here by a remarkable company of actors, much as Aldridge was in the day. Malcolm Ingram plays Bernard Warde, an older character actor who moves into the key role of Iago when Charles Kean steps away from it. Ingram's special way with words gives him a delicious edge here although we never see Warde's performance. There is a key to the relationships among the troupe lodged in the manner in which Ingram performs this part. Charles Kean is portrayed by Ben Chase as a man too settled on his own theatrical charms. He cannot admit another man, white or black, into that circle of "Kean" in a leading role in his family's company. Chase plays the anger in the man as just that, anger and not prejudice. While the words he utters may feel like the latter, the manner of them is purely professional jealousy and Chase walks that uncomfortable high fence throughout the play.
Kelley Curran plays Ellen Tree, the company's leading lady, with grace and beauty and she offers us a view into the early 19th century acting style where posture replaces emotion. Her off-stage scenes with Thompson are beautiful and her "acting" of Desdemona adds a sparkle to the end of Act One. Christianna Nelson plays three very different women and she is vitally different in each of them. He is Margaret Aldridge, wife of the actor, whose Scottish burr is delicate and affirmative. She shows devotion with complete sincerity. As actress Betty Lovell she is pert, pretty and petite, blond in the good ways and a darling in every way possible. Her first and final appearance as a Polish reporter adds nuance and humanity to her work in this show. She is a peach.
Aaron Bartz plays Henry Forrester with appropriate gusto. He gives us the much anticipated Nicholas Nickleby type of actor who enters effectively, exits exuberantly and inbetween acts as though he must act at all costs. Not exactly the comic relief in this play, Bartz does bring a bit of that to the proceedings. As a Jamaican servant girl at the theater named Connie, Ravin Patterson has the least to do, but in a wonderful second act scene with Thompson she employs the fire and enthusiasm of an uneducated girl whose own prejudices may be greater than any others on display throughout the events of the play.
Christianna Nelson and Kelley Curran; photo: Enrico Spada
John Douglas Thompson and Christianna Nelson; photo: Enrico Spada
Company director Pierre Laporte is played by Joe Tapper with an elegant French accent that feels very real and with an English sensibility that seems almost too real. Compelled by his board to dispense with the services of his good friend Ira Aldridge, Tapper's Laporte tries to be very clear about what is happening and the reasons for it. His inability to make himself completely understood, in spite of several attempts to explain the situation to Aldridge, is wonderfully acted by Tapper. Each time he moves back to the beginning of his explanation it becomes more and more offensive although he is trying so very hard to do just the opposite. Tapper and Thompson make this scene so completely emotional that it is a hard experience for them and for us as well. It is very clear that racial prejudice and the visibly interracial "kiss" is partly to blame but it is also extremely plain that the actor's ego is even more at fault. Outrage leads to rage. Thompson pulls Tapper with him into both feelings and both actors emerge here as masters of their trade.
Director Daniela Varon has given the play almost too much stylization with the company dancing, pirhouetting actually, set changes. She has created devastating sequences and played on her actor's individual strengths, some of those visual ones, to create a dynamic theatrical piece built around a fascinating script. John McDermott's sets are just fine. Matthew Miller's lighting is highly functional. Amy Altadonna's sound design is ideal. Moria Sine Clinton's costumes are beautiful. I cannot conceive of a better production of this play. Even Thompson's final appearance in a classic "white-face" makeup for his Polish Lear is right-on and well done. It brought gasps from audience members around me who clearly do not understand what the craft of acting was and what it included through the late middle years of the 20th century when every part was played fully by an actor who dissolved himself into the role rather than just putting on a costume and remaining himself.
I did find it odd that the most moving moment in the show came during the curtain call when a portrait of the actual Ira Aldridge was brought on to the stage and the entire company bowed to it, acknowledging the triumph of a man who was out of his time yet made an impact that has fallen into historic obscurity during our own time. Still a tear is a tear and is worth achieving no matter what it takes. This play is a very good way to present a history of the theater and what acting means to everyone it touches, on stage or in the audience. A very unusual experience for an audience is made available to everyone here.
Red Velvet plays on the Tina Packer Playhouse stage at Shakespeare and Company, 70 Kemble Street, Lenox, MA through September 13. For tickets and information call the box office at 413-637-3353 or go on line at www.shakespeare.org.