Review: “Red Velvet”

Ira Aldridge (Dion Johnstone, at right) implores theater manager Pierre LaPorte (Greg Matthew Anderson) to reconsider his decision in Chicago Shakespeare Theater’s production of Red Velvet, directed by Gary Griffin, in CST’s Courtyard Theater, December 1, 2017–January 21, 2018. Photo by Liz Lauren.

RECOMMENDED

Where: Chicago Shakespeare Theater, Courtyard Theater, Navy Pier
When: through Jan. 21
Tickets: $48-$88
Phone: 312-595-5600

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Following last fall’s “The Taming of the Shrew,” framed as a performance by a Chicago women’s club on the eve of the vote for the 19th Amendment, Chicago Shakespeare Theater continues its exploration of the intersection of Shakespeare, politics, and the possibilities of theater itself with Lolita Chakrabarti’s “Red Velvet.”

This time the issue is race, and the central character is the American-born Ira Aldridge (1807-1867), who already was known as a Shakespearan actor when he immigrated to England in 1824 and became the first black man to portray Othello on the London stage. Immensely popular in his own time, he had an illustrious decades-long career touring the provinces, Europe, Russia, and beyond mostly in leading Shakepearean roles.

But if we are to believe Chakrabarti’s 2012 play, which starred her husband, Adrian Lester, in London and New York and had its Chicago premiere in 2016 at Raven Theatre, Aldridge was an egotistical, uncompromising, unhappy man haunted by his experience at London’s Theatre Royal in Covent Garden in 1833. He also, apparently, was thoroughly imbued with 21st-century attitudes about race and injustice.

Staged at Chicago Shakespeare in the round by director Gary Griffin with a dream cast led by noted Shakespearean actor Dion Johnstone, a nine-year veteran of Canada’s Stratford Festival, the evening begins and ends with a contrived, rather ponderous frame designed to show Aldridge’s state of mind. The year is 1867 and he arrives, sick and tired, in Lodz, Poland, to play King Lear, only to find a young reporter, Halina (Annie Purcell), has invaded his room determined to interview him. Furious at first, he eventually relents, perhaps seeing her as a fellow outsider who wants to make her mark (something that’s more explicit in the closing scene), whereupon she proceeds to hound him, improbably, with relentless questions about the Covent Garden incident. After she’s finally kicked out, he lies down, and the flashback begins.

As in “Shrew,” there’s political action outside as an acting company assembles. In this case, it’s debate over the Slavery Abolition Act 1833, ending slavery in most of the British Empire (though it had been illegal in England and Wales since 1772). Edmund Kean has collapsed on stage while playing Othello, and his ensemble has gathered to figure out what to do about the celebrated actor’s absence. His son, Charles Kean (Michael Hayden), regards himself as the de facto head of the company and thinks he should step into the role, but the theater manager, Pierre LaPorte (Greg Matthew Anderson) shows up and announces a different solution: He’s hired Aldridge, who also happens to be his friend.

As the others are digesting this information, Aldridge enters, sparking a flurry of reactions. Chakrabarti is careful to present a whole spectrum, which comes across as somewhat formulaic. Young abolitionist actor Henry Forester (Jürgen Hooper), the only one besides LaPorte who knew the newcomer was black, is delighted. Bernard Ward (Roderick Peeples), determinedly Old Guard, is not. Charles Kean is so outraged he refuses to go on as Iago. He’s also loathe to let his wife, Ellen Tree (Chaon Cross), continue as Desdemona, though she is intrigued by the possibilities and defies him. Ingenue Betty Lovell (Bri Sudia) is sort of clueless, while the Jamaican maid Connie (Tiffany Renee Johnson) has definite opinions about how things really are between the races but doesn’t express them until later on.

During the course of rehearsals, Aldridge advocates a more natural method of acting than the then-prevalent “teapot” style (one hand on hip, the other arm outstretched, the actor declaims the lines directly to the audience), and Tree and he develop mutual respect and admiration as they work on their Desdemona and Othello together. The centerpiece of the evening is the scene from Shakespeare’s play in which the Moor accuses his wife, and Griffin and the actors make it shockingly intense, just as it should be.

The company celebrates what they regard as a triumphant first performance—until they see the reviews. Violently racist and insulting for the most part, they reiterate questions of casting discussed earlier in the play and still argued in various forms today. At least one critic states, for example, that a fat man should never be allowed to play Falstaff nor a black man Othello, a position raised by Charles Kean, who says that such casting negates the art of acting.

In the aftermath of the reviews, LaPorte is forced by the board to shut “Othello” down after the second performance, sparking a big blowup between him and Aldridge that exposes his deep-seated racism even as there is some justice to his disappointment that Aldridge failed to heed his advice to tone down his performance until the Covent Garden audience was used to him.

Unlike “Shrew,” which ends on a happy note with everyone even coming around to the pro-suffrage position, “Red Velvet” is lose-lose. No one’s mind changes, and the play ends with the profoundly sad image of the dying Aldridge donning white face to go on as Lear, bringing full circle Chakrabarti’s parallels between the actor and the Shakepearean characters he played.

The only winner is the audience. We get to enjoy the stunning acting and sumptuous staging highlighted by the red curtain surrounding Scott M. Davis’ Victorian-accented scenic design and by Mara Blumenfeld’s impeccable costumes. I was especially taken by Cross’ elegant Ellen Tree and Anderson’s just-French-enough LaPorte, as well as by Johnstone who makes Aldridge commendably complicated and comprehensible, if too pig-headed to be completely admirable.