Also see Fred's review of His Girl Friday
Red Velvet, continuing at Shakespeare & Company’s Packer Playhouse through September 13th, is affecting, incisive, historically-based theater. It stars the absorbing, deeply talented John Douglas Thompson as Ira Aldridge, who became the first black actor to play Othello in London. The time was 1833 and the place Theatre Royal Convent Garden. Thompson is joined and supported by seven additional most adept actors. Distinctively attractive Kelley Curran, cast as Ellen Tree/Desdemona, oftentimes interfaces with Thompson’s Othello; gracefully elegant, she provides a memorable performance. Director Daniela Varon’s choice to impeccably stylize is a wise one. In all, playwright Lolita Chakrabarti’s work is informative, responsive, and detailed.
After a short section which occurs in Lodz, Poland in 1867 finding a failing Aldridge nearing the end of his life and career, the production shifts to that time, in 1833, when actor Edmund Kean is unable to perform as Othello. His son, Charles Kean (Ben Chase) is vexed to find that a black man will take that part. Thus, Charles elects not play Iago. Aldridge is married, himself, to a white woman named Margaret (Christianna Nelson - who has two other parts in Red Velvet). Now, Aldridge will take the stage with the knowledge that, before him, all who played Othello in London were white actors in blackface.
Actor Joe Tapper is pivotal as Pierre Laporte, who is managing the company. Ravin Patterson is Connie, a servant/maid from Jamaica who hasn’t formal education but who has a key moment during the second act. Veteran performer Malcolm Johnson lends a comic touch in his portrayal of Bernard Warde. Ingram also is cast as Terrence. Aaron Bartz does well with his roles which are Henry Forrester and Casimir.
As mentioned earlier, the author has decided to begin and also conclude this play with scenes in a dressing room in Poland as Aldridge’s life winds down. This does, especially during final moments, provide context. The framing portions do not, however, enhance this otherwise penetrating evening of theater.
Varon is precise and knowing with her direction. The sequence, just after intermission, which finds Aldridge and Ellen Tree alone on stage as they explore a physical encounter between Othello and Desdemona is exquisite in terms of acting technique, discipline, and power. The two are attempting to find a more descriptive, telling, acute mode as Thompson places his strong hands upon Curran’s neck and shoulders. It is a scene focusing upon leading and following as the actors exchange. As it plays, this becomes a sensitive, revealing, courageous back and forth, one which is revelatory through its honesty. Each of these characters has a complicated interior self. The play, though, is wonderfully visual.
Later, after a series of negative London reviews are cited, it is Pierre Laporte’s duty to inform Aldridge that he will no longer play the role of Othello. This was at a time, in England, when the abolition of slavery was being contemplated. That Aldridge was shut out speaks volumes (literally and through implication) regarding racism in that country. Aldridge does not take the news easily.
Thompson has been cast in the title role of Othello at Shakespeare & Company and in New York City. He has appeared in various Shakespeare productions throughout New England (it is his ninth season in Lenox) and on and off Broadway. Thompson brings a blend of character understanding, strength, and ability to capitalize on the specific. Kelley Curran, at Shakespeare & Company for her second summer, at times draws one eyes to her through her realization of the role, through her in-depth actualization of Desdemona. Watching these two actors at work is, in itself, precious. Individually and collectively, they fuse character with emotion.
Varon directs with an impressive comprehension of the work and its import. She opts for method rather than impulse. Varon is assisted by Movement Consultant Adrienne Kapstein, Choreographer Kristin Wold, and Fight Choreographer Kevin G. Coleman. John McDermott’s sets are fluently moved about during interludes by the actors as piano (through sound designer Amy Altadonna) is heard. Costumer Moria Sine Clinton makes some excellent wardrobe selections to bring us to nineteenth century London. All aspects coalesce for the first production of Red Velvet in this region.
Red Velvet continues at the Tina Packer Playhouse at Shakespeare & Company in Lenox, Massachusetts through September 13th. For tickets, call (413) 637-3353 or visit www.shakespeare.org.
- Fred Sokol