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A Mixed Bag of RED VELVET

by | Apr 1, 2024 | Review | 0 comments

Playwright Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet is primarily concerned with two things: anti-Black racism and acting styles in the nineteenth century, when the play is set. These things overlap. Ira Aldridge, the hero of Chakrabarti’s story, is a historical figure, a Black American actor who built a significant career in the UK and Europe. In Chakrabarti’s telling, at a time when “proper” acting was declamatory and full of poses, Aldridge’s more passionate, naturalistic style made him vulnerable to his racist detractors: when he takes on the role of Othello in Red Velvet, they fear for the sexual safety of the actress Ellen Tree, who is playing Desdemona, and the emotional intensity of Aldridge’s approach is held as proof of his innately dangerous and “animal” nature.

In both the script and director Omari Newton’s production for the Arts Club, the impact of the racism is breathtaking. Newton’s success with the stylistic exploration is considerably less consistent.

In the story, which is based in fact, acting superstar Edmund Kean has collapsed during a performance of Othello at the Theatre Royal and theatre owner Pierre Laporte subs in his pal Aldridge, who has already begun to make a name for himself — although not enough of a name that all the actors in the company know he’s Black. So, when Aldridge shows up to rehearse, some, including Kean’s son Charles, who thinks the role should fall to him, are outraged. Essentially, they see the presence of a Black actor as a degradation of the white institution of theatre.

In performance, audiences love Aldridge’s Othello, but many of the critics are brutal. The Times reviewer — and this is historically accurate — writes that Aldridge’s lips are “so shaped as to make it utterly impossible for him to pronounce English.”

Stylistically, Act 1 of this production is all over the place. Under Newton’s direction, too many of the performances feel artificial and coarsely comedic. The sexual tension between Aldridge and Tree is overplayed, for instance: in conversation, they move close to one another then careen apart like bumper cars — provoking easy laughs. When Aldridge and Tree are rehearsing a scene and he takes her hand, Linsey Angell, who’s playing Tree, practically swoons with lust, largely defeating the sense that the attraction is real. So many of the performers in the company of Othello are so broadly played that, instead of seeing daily life contrasted with florid nineteenth-century stage performance, we see two kinds of overacting.

And overacting is unnecessary, including for the comedic bits. Two actors shine in Act 1. Both are relaxed and, when it’s called for, both are funny. Without sacrificing the humanity of his character, which he maintains throughout, John Emmet Tracy, who’s playing Laporte, gets subtle laughs from the rhythms of his delivery. And, in an entirely credible performance, Nathan Kay manages the lovely trick of making a young actor named Henry both a prig and a sympathetic guy: Henry is the product of his privilege, but his heart’s in the right place. He’s outspoken in his opposition to slavery, which was being debated in England at the time. And, in its puppyish, young-actor narcissism, Kay’s performance is the comic highlight of the evening.

Another, different kind of success: near the end of the first act, we see Aldridge and Tree acting a scene from Othello for a live audience and Angell performs a kind of magic. Staying basically within the presentational approach of the time but, with Aldridge’s encouragement, adding more responsiveness, she showed me how poetic and moving that antique style must have been sometimes. I felt like I’d been offered a portal to the past.

In this scene, Quincy Armorer, who’s playing Aldridge, is less successful in his approach to the stylization but, when his Othello begins to rage at Desdemona, the power is palpable. And, in the second act, Armorer shares the best scene in this production with Tracy, the actor playing Aldridge’s friend Laporte. Facing pressure from the theatre’s board, Laporte is prepared to fire Aldridge and the two men duke it out verbally, then physically. Their scene is full of nuance and it contains the evening’s most devastating line. When Aldridge unleashes his fury against Laporte, Laporte, his most essential ally, says, “This is who you are.” In other words, you are, by nature, incapable of self-control.

Overall, performances in Act 2 are more naturalistic, which is a very good thing. I appreciated Tess Degenstein’s work, especially in this act, as Polish reporter Halina Wozniak and Aldridge’s loyal, exhausted wife Margaret.

I’m grateful that, in her analysis of oppression, playwright Chakrabarti includes misogyny (Wozniak is degraded by her colleagues) and homophobia, as it impacts Laporte.

The team that Newton has assembled delivers a stylish production. Amir Ofek provides a handsome, mostly minimalist set and CS Ferguson-Vaux impressively lush costumes.

With Ofek, Newton has created a genuine coup de théâtre. In the play’s framing device, Wozniak is interviewing Aldridge in Poland late in his life, pestering him about why he hasn’t returned to the London stage. Aldridge fights back but, when she leaves and he succumbs to the memory, he is swallowed, along with his dressing table, sinking beneath the floor of the stage. The carpet, like encasing lava, flows in after him.

RED VELVET by Lolita Chakrabarti. Directed by Omari Newton. On Thursday, March 28. An Arts Club Theatre production running at the Stanley Industrial Stage until April 21. Tickets and information

PHOTO CREDIT: Quincy Armorer and John Emmett Tracy in the best scene in Red Velvet. (Photo by Moonrider Productions)


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Copyright ©2024 Colin Thomas. All rights reserved.