As an aged Ira Aldridge, John Douglas Thompson creates a spellbinding picture of vulnerability and strength.
Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti. Directed by Daniela Varon. Staged by Shakespeare & Company in the Tina Packer Playhouse, Lenox, MA., through September 13.
By Susan Miron
Renowned actor John Douglas Thompson has put his artistic stamp on a gallery of strong characters, including Othello (also Richard III and King Lear at Shakespeare & Co.), Louis Armstrong, and this past winter the title marauder in Christopher Marlowe’s Tamburlaine in Brooklyn. In Red Velvet, Thompson gives an indelible portrayal of Ira Aldridge, the first African-American actor to play Othello at London’s Covent Garden. Acclaimed throughout Europe and England, Aldridge was born a few years after the French Revolution and lived until just after the end of the American Civil War. His approach to acting generated its own kind of upheaval — it was radical for its time. Blue Velvet’s director Daniela Varon has commented that “whether we know it or not, all of us who play Shakespeare today and all of us who come to see Shakespeare played are walking in Aldridge’s footsteps.”
Red Velvet opens and closes in Lodz, Poland, where the performer is about to go on in a production of King Lear. He is now in his sixties and near death. The nearly three-hour play focuses on three crucial episodes in Aldridge’s life. These scenes are bookended by an interview with the aged actor conducted by a thickly accented Polish woman (Christianna Nelson, who also plays Aldridge’s shy white wife) claiming to be a journalist. She barges in, demands his time, and immediately makes herself quite obnoxious. Despite her pushiness, the female manages to obtain background about the actor’s life. The determined journalist complains about being the only woman in her newsroom, a combative position that is clearly meant to resonate with the career of an African American actor who was a rarity himself — a celebrated black actor in Victorian Europe.
Talking about his past, Aldridge recalls that, at the age of 26, he was given the opportunity to play the Moor in a production of Othello at the Theatre Royal. This offer came about because a legend of Shakespearean acting, the renowned Edmund Kean, collapsed while playing Othello on stage. Aldridge was chosen as a controversial replacement, giving him a chance to become a headlining actor in a major London theater. Ironically, at the same time, the English government was debating passing an act that would abolish slavery in the colonies. Aldridge’s invitation revealed the dark racial and political fault lines of the time. The actors in the Theatre Royal Othello, for example, are appalled at theater owner/producer Pierre Laporte (Joe Tapper)’s decision to choose an African-American actor, and the voice their sentiments unapologetically. One performer, speaking for all of them, complains about the choice as an act of misguided liberalism.
Aldridge is an instant hit among the theater-goers, but he is savagely panned by critics. Laporte warns the actor to tone down his enthusiasm on stage and to be more moderate. But Aldridge won’t back down from his passionate approach to performance, a physical directness that challenged the artificial stylization audiences were used to. Aldridge felt strongly that emotion should drive physical movement; Chakrabarti makes this point in the actor’s dealings with the woman playing his Desdemona in Othello (played in the-play-within-the play by the gifted actress Kelley Curran). In her artistic dealings with Aldridge, this Desdemona learns a great deal from him about the art of acting. Aldridge encourages her to bring more honesty and humanity to the scene when her character is strangled. Watching the performers trying out various ways to make the encounter more effective provide some of Red Velvet‘s most memorable moments.
Laporte ends up firing Aldridge and lets the theater go dark. Snippets are read from the actual reviews of Othello — they are harsh and depressing. Aldridge’s career will, as a result, have to take place in other parts of Europe.
As one who was been awed by John Douglas Thompson playing Othello at Shakespeare and Company, I was thrilled to see him do a short recap of the handkerchief scene, done with such spirit and élan. But he is perhaps at his most moving here when he plays the ill and elderly Aldridge, applying white face paint as he prepares to play King Lear. This is a spellbinding picture of vulnerability and strength.
The other actors in the production, Aaron Bartz, Ben Chase, Malcolm Ingram, and Ravin Patterson, are fine. Chase is flamboyantly fun as the unhappy son of the actor who was about to be replaced, by a black man, no less. Set designer John McDermott’s Victorian scenery was far less interesting than the manner in which choreographer Kristin Wold had the characters flit balletically about its contours. The Victorian dresses were long, flouncy, and lovely; the men all wore long tailcoats with vests. Thompson’s Aldridge was outfitted in a dashing orange bathrobe during his final interview that was far livelier than he was — coughing away, soon to die. But there was nothing in the least exhausted in Thompson’s fiery and inspiring performance as one of the great Shakespeare actors.
Arts Fuse feature on Red Velvet.
Susan Miron, a harpist, has been a book reviewer for over 20 years for a large variety of literary publications and newspapers. Her fields of expertise were East and Central European, Irish, and Israeli literature. Susan covers classical music for The Arts Fuse and The Boston Musical Intelligencer. She is part of the Celtic harp and storytelling duo A Bard’s Feast with renowned storyteller Norah Dooley and, until recently, played the Celtic harp at the Cancer Center at Newton Wellesley Hospital.