Regional Reviews: San Francisco/North Bay
Red Velvet centers on Ira Aldridge, the first black performer to appear as Othello on the London stage, in 1833. It takes place during the rehearsal period and subsequent run of the publicly acclaimed but critically panned period when Aldridge was playing the Shakespearean character. Edmund Kean, one of the greatest Shakespearean actors, collapsed on stage playing the role so there is consternation within the company. Pierre LaPorte (Patrick Russell), manager of the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, announces that the role will be played by black American actor Ira Aldridge (Carl Lumbly). So how will the cast and the audience react to a black actor playing Othello?
Edmund's son Charles Kean (Tim Kniffin) has been playing the role of Iago and he believes he is his father's natural successor. Ira Aldridge has modern methods, playing the role more naturally rather than typical 19th century rhetoric with every line having its own gesture and the actors looking out at the audience. He has to win over the rest of the cast, not least of all Ellen Tree (Susi Damilano) who is his Desdemona and Kean's fiancée. This is the year slavery was abolished in England and the appearance of a black actor on the London stage will prove exceedingly troublesome, especially with Aldridge not playing it the old fashioned way but in an antagonistic manner that will just turn off London audiences.
Carl Lumbly is magnificent in the role of Ira Aldridge. His voice is commanding when he speaks the lines of Othello. This is a towering performance. Patrick Russell is outstanding with the perfect French accent as Pierre LaPorte. The confrontation with Lumbly's Aldridge in the second act is exciting.
Red Velvet contains a host of fine performances. Susi Damilano permeates Ellen Tree, playing Desdemona, with forte and a glowing frankness about how theatre could be different. Richard Louis James as Bernard Warde and Devin O'Brien as the enthusiastic abolitionist Henry Forester bring humor to their roles. Elena Wright, appearing in three roles, is pitch perfect in each, while Tim Kniffin gives an exceptional performance as the self-involved Charles Kean. Rounding out the performances is Britney Frazier as Connie. She comes into her own in the second act as the black servant in a confrontation with Aldridge with vibrant acting.
Margo Hall directs the two hour production with terrific and exciting precision while Gary English has devised a splendid set with projections in the background of old English wood cuts. Costume designer Abra Berman has designed glorious 19th century outfits for the characters.
Red Velvet plays through June 25, 2016, at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco. Second floor of the Kensington Park Hotel. For tickets and information, contact the box office at 415-677-9596 or visit www.sfplayhouse.org.