Red Velvet: In brief
The formidable British actor Adrian Lester stars as Ira Aldridge—an African-American thespian who made waves playing Othello at London's Covent Garden in 1833—in this historical drama by Lolita Chakrabarti. Tricycle Theatre's Indhu Rubasingham directs the American premiere at St. Ann's.
Red Velvet: Theater review by Helen Shaw
Lolita Chakrabarti's ambitious historical drama Red Velvet ought to make New York hang its head in shame. We have largely forgotten Ira Aldridge, one of the great talents of the 19th-century stage and an internationally famous black tragedian, yet he was our native son. The teenage Aldridge left an inhospitable America for London in the 1820s, and it has taken nearly two centuries and the British Chakrabarti to remind us of this titan, a groundbreaking actor who played all of Europe's stages even as the slave trade was only just being abolished. Written for Adrian Lester, himself fresh from a noted National Theatre production of Othello, the play offers a serious classical talent a rich plum. That it does so in an extremely uneven work, one that succumbs to some of the predictable problems of biodrama, can largely be forgiven in light of its vibrant sense of mission.
Red Velvet shows Aldridge first as an old man, preparing himself to play Lear in Lodz, Poland. A persistent journalist (Rachel Finnegan) in his grotty dressing room presses for a story, and soon Aldridge has begun to reminisce about the time in 1833 when he was called in to Covent Garden to take over as Othello from a sick Edmund Kean. Aldridge clashed with the company—Kean's son Charles refused to play Iago opposite a black Othello—and the actual reviews (read aloud in a chilling moment), revealed that even “welcoming” London was thick with racism.
Despite the production's many laurels, several elements do seem strangely basic and undertended. The framing scenes in particular are a hectic mess of exposition, and a few performances that must have started as merely broad have fallen wide into shouting and face-pulling. (Oliver Ryan's villainous Charles Kean, for instance, goes the full Snidely Whiplash.) Rubasingham's staging patterns sometimes fall into stiff half-circles and lines; after self-conscious crosses, actors stand evenly spaced and rooted in their spots as if they're waiting to be thrown a ball. Given the play's interest in acting styles and rigidity, the director may be deliberately spoofing the predirector age, making Kean's company seem contrived even in their private moments. If it is a ploy, though, it's a a dangerous ploy.
Chakrabarti's script doesn't waver in heart or ferocity, only in technical facility. Her poetic passages announce their lyricism but aren't successful—the worst example being the inapt title metaphor. “Something about velvet,” Aldridge intones. “A crushed map of who was here folded in.” This faux-period portentousness sounds awkward in his mouth, and just when we think the play is intentionally making him into a self-dramatizing peacock, the language shifts again into casual anachronism.The promising playwright hasn't quite found a consistent voice, and you can hear the play's long development process in this stitched-together quality. Yet for all that, there are scenes here that are, frankly, thrilling. Chakrabarti is herself an actor, and she knows how to delineate moments that will be delicious to play.
The play makers, overwhelmed by the astonishing richness of Aldridge's real life, move in several thematic directions at once, but the one they seem to feel most deeply is the collision between 19th-century performance modes. Aldridge lands in the middle of Kean's convention-bound classical company like a bomb. He demands that Ellen Tree's Desdemona (Charlotte Lucas) look at him in their scenes; he prefers the so-called “domestic style” and tries to drag the others away from declamation toward something just as heightened but perhaps more deeply felt.
The wry Lucas and Lester play spiritedly together in the comic clash-of-traditions rehearsal scene, but when they show us a snippet from the “real” performance, they burn the place down. Yes, to modern eyes, it's still posed and physically artificial, but the pair manages to make it entirely persuasive. Lucas thunders; Lester thunders back; we are reduced to rubble. I'm astonished to report that the old melodramatic mode can still stun an audience, that it isn't as outdated as we've always assumed. The production insists on it. Indeed, it offers us, as Othello would say, the ocular proof.—Theater review by Helen Shaw