At the Chicago Shakespeare Theater (Courtyard)
By Dan Zeff
Chicago –“Red Velvet” at the Chicago Shakespeare Theater is based on the life of 19th century American-born actor Ira Aldridge, who won fame and fortune playing Shakespearean roles. Aldridge was a great tragedian but he was also black. an enormous impediment in the racist atmosphere of 19th century theater. Aldridge moved to Europe after his color closed all theatrical doors to him in America, where slavery was still legal. He settled overseas, spending the last 40 years of his life on the continent, until his death in 1867.
The drama, written by Lolita Chakrabarti, opened in London in 2012 and gained considerable acclaim, largely through the towering performance by Adrian Lester in the starring role. The production played in the United States briefly in 2014 and again won raves thanks to Lester’s galvanizing performance.
Now the CST is presenting “Red Velvet,” with the noted Canadian actor Dion Johnstone in the Aldridge role. It’s obvious by the end of the evening how important Lester was to the success of the play. Johnstone is a fine actor, but in spite of a solid supporting cast and resourceful directing by Gary Griffin’, “Red Velvet” is just a middling playgoing experience.
The play begins and ends in a dressing room in Lodz,.Poland, where a fatally ill Aldridge is preparing to play the title role in “King Lear,” which he will perform in white-face makeup. Much of the opening scene is an interview forced on Aldridge by an officious young Polish journalist. Her broken English and blunt questions stir some laughs before the play flashes back to 1833 and backstage at a theater in Covent Garden, London. The famous English actor Edmund Kean is booked to play the title role in “Othello” but he has fallen seriously ill and a replacement is urgently needed.
Pierre LaPorte, the company manager, has hired Aldridge, who was performing in provincial English theaters, as a replacement. Aldridge had the talent to play the tragic hero but he was black, and a black thespian had never played Othello before in London, but enter the demon of racial intolerance. Not only is Aldridge the wrong color, but it’s the wrong time. England was currently embroiled in a controversy over whether to outlaw slavery, and public emotions were running high. All in all, the racial atmosphere was very tense.
Aldridge did perform in “Othello” in Covent Garden, but after two performances LaPorte closed the show after the actor’s performance was trashed by the bigoted London drama critics. Aldridge, a proud and temperamental man, was outraged but helpless. The show did not go on.
“Red Velvet” is built on a single absorbing character. There are numerous supporting figures but they don’t amount to much dramatically. It’s Aldridge’s show and yet there are several scenes in which the actor doesn’t appear, slowing the momentum of the story. There is a valuable contribution by Chaon Cross as Ellen Tree, the Desdemona in the ”Othello” revival. And there is good work by Michael Hayden as Charles Kean, Edmund’s son and a disagreeable snide fellow. Props also go to the rest of the ensemble–Roderick Peeples, Bri Sudia, Annie Purcell, Greg Matthew Anderson (especially effective as Pierre LaPorte), Jurgen Hooper, and Tiffany Renee Johnson.
But it all comes down to the actor playing Aldridge. Johnstone is at his best in a rehearsal of the handkerchief scene with Cross’s Desdemona. His rising jealous fury builds to a terrifying climax and at this point I would have willingly traded “Red Velvet” for a presentation of “Othello” with the same cast. Unfortunately, as good as his Aldridge is, Johnstone’s portrait doesn’t always have the larger than life fascination the play requires to keep the audience engaged.
Aldridge might be an outsized dramatic figure but he didn’t lead a particularly dramatic life. Yes, he faced unfair ridicule from vengeful critics because of his color but he did rise to considerable eminence from European audiences (after his death in Poland he received a state funeral). And he was happily married, at least to his second wife and had four children. This is not to diminish the racial intolerance he endured, but at least as portrayed in “Red Velvet” his personal and professional life were relatively incident free.
But credit the play with providing interesting insights into the creative process. Aldridge and Ellen Tree exchange fascinating ideas on how to strengthen and shape individual moments in a scene from “Othello.” And the contrasts between Aldridge’s push for a more realistic acting style clash vividly with the grand gestures of the prevalent heroic style that looks so old fashioned today.
The production is staged in the CST Courtyard Theater, which is reformatted into a theater in the round for no obvious reason. The playing area is confining rather than intimate, perhaps further restricting the play’s overall emotional intensity. The set by Scott Davis does reference the play’s title with a plush red velvet curtain ascending and descending to engulf the entire stage. The set changes are often facilitated by stagehands emerging and descending from below stage level through trap doors. It sounds artificial and distracting but the stagehand appearances are woven deftly into the play’s mood.
The physical production also benefits from Mara Blumenfeld’s period costumes, Christine Binder’s atmospheric lighting, and Christopher Kriz’s sound design. Jenny Giering is responsible for the appropriately grandiose music.
Our local scene has been favored with a mini-festival of plays exploring Shakespeare-flavored theater history, featuring such excellent shows as “Shakespeare in Love” and “The Book of Will.” “Red Velvet” is in that tradition but not at their level of achievement. The production might have benefited from a smaller venue like the CST’s Yard theater space. But the plot still would still lack ongoing excitement, remaining more a performance than a complete dramatic experience. The remainder of the CST season consists of “Mary Stuart,” “Macbeth,” and “Waiting for Godot,” all interesting-sounding productions, so all should yet be well in 2018.
“Red Velvet” runs through January 21 at the CST Courtyard Theater on Navy Pier. Tickets are $48 to $88. For performance times call 312 595 5600 or visit www.chicagoshakes.com.
The show gets a rating of
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