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A CurtainUp NJ Review
Red Velvet

You are every inch the Moor — Pierre Laporte
Red Velvet
Lindsay Smiling and Victoria Mack (Photo credit: Jerry Dalia0
One might wish that this first play by Lolita Chakrabarti had a better title or a title as good as the play she has written about the relatively unheralded African-American actor Ira Aldridge who infuriated the critics, if not the apparently the audience, when he played Othello in London in 1833. The idea of a black Othello touching the hand of a white Desdemona was enough to send waves of fury through a population not yet able to conceive of, let alone tolerate, color-blind casting. Indeed, the theatrical community at the time appeared be in a state of high alert. The memory of another more famed African-American actor Paul Robeson giving Uta Hagen a real smackeroo in a 1947 Broadway production of Othello also proved stunning in as much as the two were also having a barely concealed real life love affair at the time.

What really counts here is the excellence of the way Chakrabarti imagines what took place back stage at Covent Garden's Theatre Royale where the otherwise well-known at the time Shakespearean was about to make his unheralded debut. Apparently Aldridge, who was lauded for his Shakespearean roles with black theatrical companies, was summoned by the theater's manager when the renowned but physically ailing star Edmund Kean collapsed suddenly while preparing for the role. The story is bookended between a scenes that takes place prior to his debut at Covent Garden and then again at the end of Aldridge's life as he ironically is preparing to play King Lear in Poland in whiteface in 1867.

Director Bonnie J. Monte has smartly directed an accomplished ensemble of actors that is bringing vividness to Chakrabarti's real life characters. Much of the pleasure of this play, now having its New Jersey premiere, derives from seeing how Aldridge attempts to replace traditional flamboyance with more the more realistic style of acting that he has been nurturing.

The rehearsal scenes are marvelously depicted as Aldridge (a terrific and charismatic Lindsay Smiling) and leading lady Ellen Tree (a beguiling Victoria Mack) go line by line through the famous handkerchief scene to the astonishment of the nervous company. There is a hint of physical attraction between them that Mack and Smiling play subtly and to perfection. Worth noting is that Smiling and Mack, who played opposite each other under Monte's direction in a 2011 production of Othello , are making the sparks fly again.

The French theater manager Pierre Laorte (David Foubert) robustly defends and stands by his provocative decision to have Aldridge replace Kean but only supporting actor Henry (Garrett Lawson) can attest to having seen Aldridge actually perform. Lawson is also very fine doubling in the prologue as a stage hand. Sofia Jean Gomez is also impressive in two roles, playing an aggressive Polish journalist and later as Aldridge's adoring and supportive wife Margaret.

Bringing a lot of dash and panache to the play is Edmund Kean's arrogant and pompous son Charles (David Andrew Macdonald), who is to play Iago, and is most vehement in his disapproval. Charles not only represents the view that acting should be a transformation but makes a case for it in a long-winded diatribe that concludes,If we bring Jews to play Shylock, blacks to play the Moor, half-wits to play Caliban, we decimate ourselves in the name of what? Fashion? Politics?"

In truth, the press in 1833 were unanimous in their dislike for Aldridge with one such personal notation as "His features, though African, are considerably humanized." This largely character-driven play gives time for the actors in the company to express their dismay, as does the hugely disappointed Pierre who was forced to replace Aldridge after the reviews were published.

The production has been given a rich but subdued color palette as expressed by designers Bethanie Wampol (settings), Burke Wilmore (Lighting) and costumes (Paul Candada). That red velvet curtain does brings its grand contours around a grand new play. It was also good to see a nearly full house at a Tuesday evening performance. Enthusiastic word of mouth should help keep the theater filled for the duration of its run.

Editor's Note: For Curtainup's review of another, also outstandingly cast and stage production at Shakespeare & Co in Lenox go here .

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Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti
Directed by Bonnie J. Monte

Cast: Garrett Lawson (Casimir, Henry Forester), Sofia Jean Gomez (Halina Wozniak, Margaret Aldridge), John Little (Terrence), Lindsay Smiling (Ira Aldridge), Shannon Harris (Connie), Savannah DesOrmeaux (Betty Lowell), John Little (Bernard Warde), Victoria Mack (Ellen Tree), David Andrew Macdonald (Charles Kean), David Foubert (Pierre Laporte)
Scenic Design: Bethanie Wampol
Lighting Design: Burke Wilmore
Costume Designer: Paul Canada
Sound Designer: Bonnie J. Monte
Production Stage Manager: Denise Cardarelli
Running time: 2 hours including intermission
The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey on the Main Stage: the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre, on the campus of Drew University, 36 Madison Avenue (at Lancaster Road), Madison, N.J.
(973) 408 - 5600
Tickets: $25.00 - $75.00
Performances: Tuesday, Wednesday, and Sunday at 7:30; Thursday, Friday and Saturday at 8 pm; Matinees Saturdays and Sundays at 2 pm.
From 09/07/16 Opened 09/10/16 Ends 09/25/16
Review by Simon Saltzman based on performance 09/13/16

NJ Theaters
NJ Theatre Alliance
Discount Tix Information

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