London was the center of the theater world in the 19th century, and Edmund Kean was one of its most celebrated Shakespeareans. So when Kean collapsed during an 1833 performance of Othello, the part was offered to another celebrated actor, Ira Aldridge. What could go wrong?
Well, for one thing, Aldridge was an American. And for another, he was black. Such is the tantalizing setup for the Jewel Theater’s new production of Red Velvet by British playwright Lolita Chakrabarti.
Using the past to explore the present cultural conversation, Chakrabarti probes a suite of issues and situations, from acting styles and gender roles to the lingering racism that dogged England even after the country abolished slavery in 1831.
If that sounds like a full plate for a single play, it is. But the consummate cast, stylish set and ingenious ensemble direction power Red Velvet to an absorbing two hours of theater. The drama begins and ends in Poland, but we also travel to London with Aldridge (played here by Aldo Billingslea).
The play plunges directly into the heart of the action, where Kean’s acting company learns of the new Othello. There is much storming by Kean’s son Charles (Jeremy Kahn) when he’s told by company manager Pierre Laporte (Jeffrey Fiorito) that Aldridge will play Othello.
The ensemble—celebrated actress Ellen Tree (Jennifer LeBlanc), young Henry Forrester (Teddy Spenser), veteran actor Bernard Warde (Jesse Caldwell), and a histrionic Betty Lovell (Shannon Warrick)—have all heard of Aldridge, but no one has actually seen him. So when the actor strides into rehearsal full of energy and ideas, they are stunned.
The linchpin of Chakrabarti’s plot—a black man daring to play a black man—unleashes melodrama aplenty. “This isn’t a circus,” snarls Charles Kean, who refuses to step on the same stage as Aldridge. Oh, the irony.
It’s a sense of irony that reverberates throughout the play. If Aldridge is worthy of playing the Moor merely because he is in fact a black man, argues Kean, then any fat drunk could be scooped up from the alleys and cast as Falstaff. Not only is a black man unwelcome on the London stage—as scathing reviews from that first night prove—but as an American, Aldridge is deemed unskilled, unprofessional and unworthy to perform Shakespeare.
Theater exists to reflect who we are, says one character in Red Velvet. It’s always political. Yet another character insists, “actors should never ask questions—just play.” Given sophisticated dialogue about theatrical styles and the intent of Shakespeare’s characters, the Jewel production’s actors polish each line into gem-like precision.
Red Velvet delivers a mesmerizing display of the oration style of 19th-century acting. As they rehearse, the six principal cast members of “Othello” adopt arcane, almost sculptural poses, freeze in place, and then deliver their lines directly to the audience. Aldridge suggests the actress playing Desdemona look at him when she speaks. She is astounded. He invites her to explore the character’s passion, rather than simply striking a pose. Playing what you feel? “How avant garde!” she exclaims with delight. As you might imagine, Aldridge is excoriated for daring to shake up highly stylized English acting.
So much is surprising, crisp and even illuminating about Red Velvet that a few false steps at the end feel all the more disappointing. As Aldridge’s career in London ends, the stalwart Billingslea is required to burst into histrionics. The play is largely at fault here, and Chakrabarti feels compelled to take on women’s rights, health care injustice and educational disparities in addition to the weighty issues already explored. That’s too much to ask a two-hour drama to juggle. But Red Velvet is so inventive and so well acted that one can squint at the playwright’s fervor.
When the actors are all together on stage, this production moves beautifully. And while each performance shines, Jennifer LeBlanc’s vocal clarity and physical presence stand out. When she and Billingslea enact one key, hair-raising scene from Othello, the stage becomes electric.
Briskly entertaining, Red Velvet invites the audience to think about some complex issues. I was hooked throughout and occasionally transported. Not much can surpass live theater in delivering so much.
‘Red Velvet’ by Lolita Chakrabarti runs at the Jewel Theater through Feb. 17. jeweltheatre.net.