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Theater Review: “Red Velvet”

Albert Jones as Ira Aldridge and Amelia Pedlow as Margaret Aldridge.
Photo credit:
Jim Cox

When Edmund Kean, the pre-eminent Shakespearean actor of the mid-19th century, took sick during a run of “Othello” in Covent Garden in 1833, New York-born Ira Aldridge took over the role. 

Aldridge thus became the first black actor to portray the Moor in England, creating a sensation (to say the least) among acting company and audiences alike and inspiring huge controversy at a time already marked by political turmoil around the abolition of slavery debate.

Playwright Lolita Chakrabarti imagines the drama behind the drama in “Red Velvet,” which plays through April 30 at The Old Globe. Stafford Arima directs.

On Jason Sherwood’s imposing (if not illuminating) revolving set, “Red Velvet” begins in Lodz, Poland in 1867, where persistent young Polish journalist Halina (Amelia Pedlow) asks Aldridge (Albert Jones) why he never returned to Covent Garden after his “Othello.” The bulk of the play explains why. 

Aldridge’s casting created a sensation among the actors – and made him one enemy right off the bat – partly because Kean’s son Charles (John Lavelle), also in the company, thought he should have gotten the call. But Aldridge was an international star with a record of sold-out houses, and theater manager Pierre Laporte (Sean Dugan) insisted.

The cast had only a day’s rehearsal to get Aldridge up to speed before the evening curtain, but that didn’t diminish the shock and awe inspired by Aldridge’s acting style, totally foreign to the English tradition of the time. His style would be called Method today – naturalistic and not of the declamatory “teapot” style then in vogue.

Aldridge’s Desdemona – Ellen Tree, played wonderfully by Allison Mack – is as surprised as the rest of the cast, but more willing to explore this different technique. That she defends Aldridge grates even more on Charles, who fancies himself engaged to her (it’s not clear that she agrees).

Aldridge’s audiences were behind him – those in the provinces had seen him many times.

He had in fact changed his name to Mr. Keene (an allusion to Edmund Kean) and even reinvented himself as the African Roscius (a famous Roman comic actor) and described himself as “a native of Senegal” in the course of his touring career as an actor.

So perhaps he had set himself up for the sometimes vicious reviews he got when he played Othello.

English audiences were scandalized by the physicality Aldridge and his co-star showed. But some critics savaged him, using the “n” word and using horrifying language to indicate their disgust that he was even allowed to play this black Shakespearean character.

The commotion (and the flu epidemic that kept many playgoers at home) caused the temporary closure of the theater.

Albert Jones’ Aldridge is commanding – at times even imperious – and utterly convincing. He and Mack’s excellent Desdemona make a fine microcosm of the future of theater for the other characters to react to

This fascinating and shocking story in theater history seems a bit underwritten and almost trivialized by the playwright, beginning with the clunky opening ten minutes, in which a stagehand chases Halina around a theater dressing room in a German-language attempted tryst, untranslated and frankly unnecessary. (The reason becomes clear later, but still seems to detract from the point of the show.)

Still, “Red Velvet” is engaging, and the poignant last scene leads us to ponder whether one character is right when he says “This concept of equality and freedom is a fad, impossible to achieve because there’ll always be those of us who must lead and those who follow.”

The details

“Red Velvet” runs through April 30, 2017 at The Old Globe’s Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage, 1363 Old Globe Way in Balboa Park.

Tuesday and Wednesday at 7 pm; Thursday and Friday at 8 pm; Saturday at 2 and 8 pm Sunday at 2 and 7 pm.

Tickets: (619) 234-5623 or theoldglobe.org