Reviewed by Deborah Klugman
Through April 30
In 1833, African-American actor Ira Aldridge became the first man of color ever to play Othello on the London stage, replacing the acclaimed English tragedian Edmund Kean after Kean became ill. This was, not-coincidentally, the same year that a momentous bill abolishing slavery was being debated in British Parliament; it would go into force the following year. The production was staged at the prestigious Covent Gardens. Aldridge received mixed reviews; although some write-ups were positive, other critics couldn’t get past his skin color and his on-stage intimacy with his Caucasian co-star, Ellen Tree. It was a humiliating experience for the actor, and while he continued to perform in England, he never again played the London stage.
The brouhaha surrounding the debut is the substance of Red Velvet, an unsubtle melodrama by British playwright Lolita Chakrabarti, which premiered in 2012 with her husband, noted TV, film and stage performer Adrian Lester, in the lead role of Aldridge.
Bookended by scenes in a backstage dressing room in Poland just prior to the actor’s demise in 1867, the script pivots around the controversy engendered at Covent Garden. Aldridge (Paul Outlaw) is brought on board the Othello production by producer Pierre Laporte (Colin Campbell), a progressive-minded Frenchman, and accepted by the younger artists within the group and by Tree (Nicola Bertram), who is playing Desdemona. But he’s emphatically rejected by the other actors, chiefly Bernard (Adam Chacon), an archconservative gasbag, and even more determinedly by Charles Kean (Ben Warner), Edmund’s son, who is incensed when Aldridge assumes the role of Othello that he had coveted for himself. Kean’s fury is further provoked by Aldridge’s developing relationship with Tree, Charles’s fiancée.
The story is laid out rather simplistically: you have those in the company, like Pierre and a forward-looking young actor, Henry (Sean C. Dwyer), who respect Aldridge, and others like Bernard and Charles, who despise him. Even before Aldridge is introduced, we witness a heated argument between Henry and Bernard about slavery. Besides providing this political context, the script includes dialogue between Aldridge and Tree about the craft of 19th century acting, the sort of dialectic (in tone if not terminology) one might expect from intense students in a contemporary method acting class.
This shortcoming and others might be overlooked given the play’s focus on the odious perpetuity of racism. But the current production exacerbates them. Under Benjamin Pohlmeier’s direction, authenticity is in short supply among the supporting ensemble, nearly all of whom get tripped up by their various accents (whether Polish, French or British, they’re all pretty dreadful).
If one were to grade, it’s perhaps Bertram who comes off best as the gracious Ellen, along with Dee Dee Stephens as the Jamaican servant who listens and reacts; Amanda Charney as a company member and Erin Elizabeth Reed as Aldridge’s wife do fine in their minor roles.
The least credible performances are delivered by Campbell, Chacon and Warner; all three are stiff and stagey, and their rheumatic efforts are a blow to the production. That’s because, although its success ultimately rests with the lead, one can’t help wondering how much better Outlaw might have been with more capable artists to play off of. On stage he displays signs of a character with an inner life — a dialogue with himself not in the script But his efforts to develop nuance go nowhere, and the Aldridge he does show us is a temperamental narcissist and not easy to warm to.
One thing’s for sure: the props need an upgrade. Using what looks like off-the-shelf white mugs from JC Penney or HomeGoods in a 19th century period piece is careless staging.
Atwater Playhouse, 3191 Casitas Ave., #100, Atwater; Fri. –Sat., 8:00 p.m.; Sun., 5:00 p.m.; (800) 838-3006, redvelvet.brownpapertickets.com. Running time: 2 hours and 15 minutes with intermission.