Review: “Red Velvet”

Brandon Greenhouse, Sophia Menendian
Brandon Greenhouse, Sophia Menendian

SOMEWHAT RECOMMENDED

Where: Raven Theatre, 6157 N. Clark St.
When: through Nov. 27
Tickets: $38-$46
Phone: 773-338-2177

By ANNE SPISELMAN
Theater Critic

Raven Theatre is kicking off a season dedicated to “breaking the rules” with the Chicago premiere of Lolita Chakrabarti’s “Red Velvet,” which had a well-received 2012 London debut starring Adrian Lester, the playwright’s husband. It’s a fitting choice, since the play is about Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to portray Othello on the London stage. The year is 1833, a time of debate about ending slavery in the United Kingdom (though it had been illegal in England and Wales since 1772).

Aldridge (1807-1867), an African American who immigrated to England in 1824 and was already well-known as a Shakespearean actor, got the chance at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden when Edmund Kean, the most famous actor of the day, fell ill on stage, and theater manager Pierre LaPorte asked his friend to step in. But his triumph was very short-lived: Viciously racist reviews and the reaction of the board forced LaPorte to close the theater after two performances, and Aldridge subsequently forged an illustrious career touring the provinces, the Continent, Russia, and beyond.

Chakrabarti uses these facts to weave a backstage drama that not only tackles racism but also devotes a great deal of time to discussing and demonstrating conflicting acting styles. The classical, or “teapot” style (with one hand on a hip and the other outstretched, like the handle and spout of a teapot, actors declaimed their lines), was prevalent at the time, but Aldridge favored a more domestic style with stronger connections between characters and more natural line delivery. Questions of casting also come under scrutiny with quotes from critics to the effect that a fat man should never be allowed to play Falstaff or a black man Othello.

Raven’s production, directed by Michael Menendian, illuminates the issues to some extent, but the acting is uneven, and the staging—on the broad staging divided into three areas by scenic designer Ray Toler–is a little clunky.

While Chakrabarti’s script is admirably multilayered, for example with complicated parallels between Aldridge’s situation and Othello’s, it also relies on a hoary opening device. The action begins in 1867 in Lodz, Poland, where the dying Aldridge (Brandon Greenhouse) has come to play King Lear. An eager 22-year-old reporter named Halina Wozniak (Sophia Menendian) wrangles her way into his dressing room and refuses to leave until the curmudgeonly old actor grants her an interview. One of the questions she asks is why he never returned to Covent Garden after “Othello,” and after he gets rid of her, he lies down on the settee in his dressing room, and we flash back to those not-entirely-good old days.

We never see Edmund Kean or his collapse, but we’re introduced to the other members of the company who wonder what’s going to happen next. When LaPorte (Matthew Klingler) announces that Aldridge is going to play Othello and the actor arrives, they exhibit a spectrum of reactions. Young supporting actor Henry Forester (Tim Martin), an abolitionist and the only one who knows Aldridge is black, is delighted. At the other end is Kean’s son Charles (Tyler Rich), who expected to step into the title role, and is so enraged he refuses to continue as Iago. Veteran actor Bernard Warde (Scott Olson) shares his racism, and ingenue Betty Lovell (Menendian) contributes some baffling comments. Leading lady Ellen Tree (Tuckie White), who has the most sensitive role as Desdemona (since Othello marries, then strangles, her) is wary at first, but as she rehearses with Aldridge and they share ideas on acting, she comes to respect and like him. The maid Connie (Anna Dauzvardis), a Caribbean immigrant, has opinions of her own on relations between the races but is loathe to express them unless she’s asked.

The buildup to—and aftermath of—opening night fill much of the evening. The first performance leaves the ensemble thrilled, and Tree, who by this time is attracted to Aldridge, comes to his dressing room to discuss it. There she meets the actor’s wife, Margaret (Menendian again, in one too many instances of doubling), and an award scene ensues. We’ve learned something of Aldridge’s private life in the opening scene, but the details of his two marriages and several children remain confusing and sketchy.

The rest of the company is feeling good, too, and even old Bernard appreciates Aldridge’s talent. Then they see the reviews and don’t know what to say, so they shun him. The decisive explosion actually is between Aldridge and the Frenchman LaPorte, whose own racism comes out when he blames the actor for not exercising “restraint” in Othello’s scenes with Desdemona and compares the actor’s hot temper with the Moor’s as an innate African attribute.

The finale reverts to Lodz in 1867, with Wozniak returning to apologize, and the ailing Aldridge perparing to go on as Lear—in white face. Chakrabarti presents this as a tragic end to what would have been a sensational career were it not for prejudice about color. But it made me wonder if Aldridge, who achieved stunning success for his time, really was as angry and resentful as she suggests.

Be that as it may, Greenhouse gives a solid performance and is especially strong in the scenes with White, both as Tree and Desdemona. Most of the rest are rather one-dimensional and broad, but it’s not entirely their fault. “Red Velvet” isn’t quite the revelation I hoped for, but it is worth seeing.