Review: ‘Red Velvet’ at S.F. Playhouse (****)

by Barry David Horwitz
Rating: ****
(For an explanation of TheatreStorm’s rating scale, click here.)

Carl Lumbley as Ira Aldrige (playing Ohtello) and Susie Damilano as Ellen Tree (playing Desdemona) in "Red Velvet." Photo Credit: Ken Levin.
Carl Lumbly as Ira Aldrige (playing Othello) and Susie Damilano as Ellen Tree (playing Desdemona) in “Red Velvet.” Photo Credit: Ken Levin.
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)
This reviewer is a voting member of the San Francisco Bay Area Theatre Critics Circle (SFBATCC)

“Red Velvet” by Lolita Chakrabarti premiered at the Tricycle Theater, London, in 2012, starring her husband, the British actor, Adrian Lester. In 2014, the acclaimed historical play returned to London and also traveled to New York.  “Red Velvet” tells the true story of Ira Aldridge (Carl Lumbly), a young African American actor who was the Jackie Robinson of Shakespearean actors. In 1833, Aldridge was the first Black actor to be cast in a leading role in London at the Covent Garden Theater. Aldridge, played at S.F. Playhouse by the elegant Lumbly, returns from his European tours to London to play Othello, a role he has played triumphantly in Russia, Prussia, and the English provinces.

When the famed actor Edmund Kean is sidelined by an accident, a French producer, Pierre LaPorte (Patrick Russell), calls on his friend, Aldridge, to break the “color line” in English theater. Russell, delightful and winning as LaPorte, works hard to make Eldridge acceptable to the cast of Othello.

Up to that point, Othello had been played in black-face by British white guys. And the theater world is stuck in the “teapot” school of acting — using elaborate frozen poses with arms outstretched, expressing artificial emotions. For the first time, they are confronted with a realistic, Black Othello. “Red Velvet” shows us how the entrenched elites will make up reasons to close the gates of wealth and influence to outsiders and upstarts. Sounds a bit like Hillary vs. Bernie vs. You Know Who, doesn’t it? “Red Velvet,” an historical and biographical British play, shows how the Establishment contrives to justify its rejection of new faces and new ideas. Even in Shakespeare’s time, an established Elizabethan dramatist, Robert Greene, famously ridiculed the young Shakespeare as “an upstart crow, beautified with our feathers…”

In this historical recounting, Aldridge embodies a new school of acting — full of emotion and passion, energized by his barely suppressed anger at being slighted and victimized. Aldridge pours New World artistry into his Shakespearean roles on stage. Lumbly makes him eloquent, aloof, and a touch arrogant, befitting a man struggling with the last days of slavery in England. He deals with the tradition-bound, uptight English one percent with reason, condescension, and intelligence. Lumbly makes us all believers in the talent and innovations of Ira Eldridge, when, as Ira, he plays the handkerchief scene from Othello with rare brilliance and depth.

The question is: Can the others bear to learn from the African American actor, or will his super-powers prevent them from appreciating his art and his humanity? Can they handle someone new, who threatens their ruling class status and their racist lies? How will they accept learning a new style from an upstart crow?

The play presents several reactions to Aldridge, from outright disdain and rejection by Edmund Kean’s son, Charles (Tim Kiffin), to open-hearted embrace by Henry Forester (Devin O’Brien).  Kiffin gives us a thrilling portrait of upper class ignorance and  deviousness; while O’Brien welcomes Aldridge with enthusiasm, in a stirring portrayal of a young man ready to welcome the future.

The incomparable Susi Damilano plays Ellen Tree, a great female actor of her day, who plays Desdemona to Aldridge’s Othello. Tree is attracted by the strong and sensual Aldridge, and warms to him quickly. Tree eagerly embraces his more emotional and honest form of acting. When Tree rehearses some passionate touching with Aldridge, we feel her excitement and bravery at breaking barriers. Damilano moves us deeply, as she channels Ellen Tree into the present day.

An older actor, Bernard Warde (Richard Louis James) cannot abandon his old prejudices. In a droll comic turn, James works the character into a frenzy of hide-bound fears. Ward makes a fool of himself, jumping on the bandwagon of hatred. And hovering delicately in the background, the maid, Connie (Britney Frazier), from colonial Jamaica, waits her moment to set the condescending crew in their places. She is a marvel to watch.

The main character in “Red Velvet,” aside from Aldridge, turns out to be the English upper class, with their inability to face their own narrow-mindedness and ignorance. On that uptight little island, they reject the power of humanity that is blowing from the Continent and from America. They cannot face the change. Even at that early date, the British class system fears for its downfall, having lost the U.S. colonies not many years before.

What happens to a culture run by fear? What happens when the ruling class digs in and rejects honest feelings and equal treatment? Well, we know what happens: pride, prejudice, hatred, empire, cruelty, and endless wars yet to come. They couldn’t handle the French Revolution, either. They couldn’t see two World Wars coming at them, in time. They will lose the Empire which was never theirs, anyway. And today, many Brits still want to abandon the European Union. Will they ever learn? Will we?

Although the play is smoothly directed by Margo Hall, the pace slows down at times, and the ending is problematic. But the over-all story and the characters are gripping.

Don’t miss a wonderful night of theater, spent with a stage full of brilliant actors. Director Hall has given each of them a moment in the sun. She shows us what it is to be old in the theater and young in the theater, full of old ideas or full of new passions. That’s quite an achievement for the Ira Aldridge who was almost lost to us and the excellent company that brings his story to life.

“Red Velvet” plays at San Francisco Playhouse through June 25, 2016. For further information, click here

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“Red Velvet,” by Lolita Chakrabarti, produced by SF Playhouse. Director: Margo Hall. Set Designer: Gary English. Casting Director: Lauren English. Props Artisan: Jacquelyn Scott. Lighting Designer: Kurt Landisman. Sound Designer: Theodore J.H. Hulsker. Costume Designer: Abra Berman. Wig Designer: Tabbitha McBride

Cast: 

Casimir/Henry Forester: Devin O’Brien. Halina Wozniak/Betty Lovell/Margaret Aldridge: Elena Wright. Terence/Bernard Warde: Richard Louis James. Connie: Britney Frazier. Ellen Tree: Susi Damilano. Charles Kean: Tim Kniffin. Pierre LaPorte: Patrick Russell. Ira Aldridge: Carl Lumbly.

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