Regional Reviews: Philadelphia
Also see Rebecca's review of Strange Tenants
McClendon is back on the Philadelphia boards to explore another strand of Shakespearean history. In Lolita Chakrabarti's Red Velvet, presented by Lantern Theater Company, he plays Ira Aldridge (1807-1867), the pioneering African-American actor who made an unlikely career in mid-nineteenth century European theater. Othello became Aldridge's calling card, somewhat controversially; he encountered both outright racism and skepticism from critics and audiences who felt that a black man playing the Moor didn't require any skill. Aldridge endured great hardships but largely soldiered on, performing almost until the eve of his death. His life has all the makings of a fascinating and relevant story, but neither Chakrabarti's play nor McClendon's performance end up entirely successful.
Primarily an actress, Chakrabarti wrote Red Velvet as a vehicle for her husband, the terrific British actor Adrian Lester. Her novice shows. Chakrabarti flirts with the big ideas that permeate Aldridge's life story: his struggle to be viewed as a serious, talented actor; the myriad microaggressions he endures at the hands of his colleagues; the blithe denial of his very humanity. These issues haven't left the foreground of theater 150 years later, where controversies over authentic casting and basic representation still exist. "Theater is a political act," says Pierre Laporte (Damon Bonetti), the Covent Garden company manager who engineers Aldridge's impromptu London debut.
That's right, of course, but you wouldn't know it from this play. Chakrabarti merely flirts with weightier themes, then reaches for a cheap laugh or a bit of situational humor. Laporte took a great risk in replacing the eminent British actor Edmund Kean with Aldridge, but the main takeaway from Chakrabarti's writing is that anything said in a French accent is meant to be humorous. (I don't blame Bonetti; he tries hard with the little he's given.) Likewise, David Bardeen has to ham it up so dreadfully as the bloated second-rater Bernard Warde that the character's genuine moment of gimlet-eyed observation ("The British know what they like, and they like what they know") slides by almost unnoticed. Many of the play's more serious momentsa frank conversation between Aldridge and Connie (Ebony Pullum), a Jamaican servant; a final dust-up between Aldridge and Laporteland awkwardly. After so much unnecessary comedy, the tonal shift is too jarring.
McClendon, too, never quite finds his footing. He comes across well in the framing device, which finds Aldridge interviewed near the end of his life by an intrepid Polish reporter (Liz Filios, saddled with the worst wig I've ever seen). In these scenes, he projects a world-weariness that's understandable after years of prejudice and pain. But I never quite believed Aldridge's dynamism when the drama flashes back to the early days of his career, nor did I find authenticity in the fugue-like rage that overtakes Aldridge after he learns he's been fired from Covent Garden. I just saw acting choices.
Director Peter DeLaurier has a bad habit of putting actors with backs to the audience at important moments. And although the fault primarily lies with the writing, much of the pacing and blocking in the long second act feels unnecessarily arch. Meghan Jones' proscenium set design offers a fair amount of sui generis pleasure in its rich period details, as do some of Janus Stefanowicz's costumes. But the prominent use of purple in the section of the play set in 1833a full thirty years before that color was commonly incorporated into the garment trademakes little sense. Like much of the play, the details are a bit off.
Near the end of the first act, McClendon and Lauren Sowa (playing Ellen Tree, Aldridge's Desdemona) step before a red velvet curtain and play a snippet of the handkerchief scene from Othello. Their acting is comically stylized, but it's impossible not to recognize the beauty and power of Shakespeare's language. Sowa was actually McClendon's Desdemona in the Philadelphia Shakespeare Theatre production, and I momentarily felt transported back to that satisfying theatrical experience. It's not surprising that this scene offered the best writing of the night.
Red Velvet continues through Sunday, October 8, 2017, at St. Stephen's Theater, 10th and Ludlow Streets. Tickets ($10-45) can be purchased online at www.lanterntheater.org or by calling 215-829-0395.