A CurtainUp Berkshire Review
By Elyse Sommer
There was a special poignancy about that premiere production which also transferred briefly to St. Ann's Warehouse in Brooklyn: Adrian Lester, who played Aldrich is one of Great Britain's outstanding actors and Ms. Chakrabarti's husband. When he took on the starring role he was already scheduled to play Othello at the National Theater.
Ms. Chakrabarti couldn't wish for a more perfect actor than John Douglas Thompson to star in Shakespeare & Company's first American production. His introducing Red Velvet to Berkshire audiences also resonates meaningfully: Thompson has been dubbed as one of the current theater's finest Shakespeare interpreters, and like Adrian Lester has done equally exceptional work in a variety of plays. Despite a busy schedule in New York, he's been a regular presence in Lenox, including a memorable Othello in 2008 and most recently the world premiere of Satchmo at the Waldorf (like Red Velvet at the Tina Packer Playhouse.
While one of Red Velvet's most potent scenes is a full rendition of Othello's famous handkerchief scene, this is more than a dramatized biography but a multi-faceted play. In fact, though obviously well researched, Chakrabarti's story telling is fictive. Her focus is on an event in 1833 — the twenty-six-year old Aldrich's trail blazing appearance at London's Covent Gardens that caused him to leave England and spend the rest of his life touring (most successfully so) other the provinces and other countries.
The play is framed by a convenient device of a beginning and end scene to introduce and windup a flashback to the main part of a play or novel. Thus Red Velvet begins and ends in the dressing room of a Polish Theater. The time is 1887 and Aldrich is no longer playing the young Moor but Lear. (Shakespeare & Company regulars will be reminded of a similar introduction and end from Satchmo. . .). That familiar bookending device is the only less than extraordinary aspect of this otherwise completely original work.
In the opening bookend segment an ambitious young journalist (Christiana Nelson, who also plays Aldrich's English wife Margaret) invades his dressing room takes us back more than 30 years to London. England's great Edmund Kean was due to play Othello at Covent Garden but is too ill to go on. Kean's son Charles (Ben Chase) is ready to step up to the title role, from his usual Iago. But the company manager, Pierre Laporte (Joe Tapper), has used disaster as an opportunity to introduce theater audiences to a Moor who won't need black face makeup. He's engaged the young American Aldridge who's garnered good reviews since moving to London
The prestigious Kean company's actors, especially Kean Junior (Ben Chase), are wary about a newcomer, and at that, a Yank. But they're in for a real shock when Ira Aldridge arrives and they see that he's black. After all, in the theater they know the Moor's skin color has always been an allusion to the style of the play. The Kean regulars' mixed reactions to Aldrich are also shaped by tumultuous political climate brewing in London at the time as well as theatrical tradition and a certain elitism, as most evident in the snobbish Bernard Warde (Malcolm Ingram) who voices his reaction to meeting his new colleague with "Oh. . .my. . .god! Black as your hat."
The actors' interchanges preceding and following the arrival of Aldrich have an amusing Wildean flavor and the ensemble of Shakespeare's production are excellent, with Ingram's and snobbish Bernard and Chase's self-important Charles Keane landing some of the funniest lines.
But this is is John Douglas Thompson's show and it's a spellbinding performance that blazes with passion and showcases his distinctive vocal clarity. He fully conveys his character's commitment to acting as a noble profession, his uncompromising vision for a more visceral acting style, and the pain of being rejected by even his greatest supporter, the company manager.
Since this production alternates on the Tina Packer stage with two other productions ( Unexpected Man and John McDermott's scenery is of necessity more bare bones. That means no back drop curtain to illustrate the title. Director Daniela Varon offsets this by having Kristin Wold choreograph the between scenes prop movements in the full of flourishes style under assault by Aldrich. It's a clever conceit though it eventually gets a bit tiresome. Fortunately, for the audience's visual pleasure, there's nothing barebones about Moria Sine Clinton's costumes for the whole company.
Though certainly not unaware of the outsider problems of a black man, Thompson's Aldrich is a proud and self-assured man. He acknowledges his respect for the ill Kean and appreciation for the opportunity to take his place, but he's not afraid to claim a lead actor's rights to determine the approach to the performances.
Ellen Tree (Kelley Curran) who'll be his Desdemona, is sufficiently taken with Aldridge's early Method acting style. Keane Junior, who also happens to be her fiance, is not, but Thompson's Aldridge is uncowed by his claim to following in his father's footsteps by virtue of pedigree with "everyone knows lightning never strikes the same place twice."
Since Red Velvet is as much about how acting styles like everything in life must continue to grow and change, the sample scenes done with the artifice of the then fashionable style vividly exemplify why Aldridge felt a need for change. Yet, even the riveting handkerchief rehearsal scene is still more stylized than what we're accustomed to today.
As exciting as that Othello excerpt is, the final confrontation between him and Joe Tapper's Laporte is a gut wrencher. But there's also the deeply moving and ironic finale which does make a case for that bookending device. The image of the now ailing and elderly Aldridge applying white makeup for his Lear Performance will stay with you for a long time.
Here's hoping that audiences elsewhere in the US will have a chance to see this fascinating play. In the best of all possible worlds I'd like to see the Theatre for a New Audience, who staged Thompson's magnificent Tamburlaine last year, bring him back to the , Polonsky Shakespeare Center in Brooklyn for an in-rep double bill of Red Velvet and Othello.