Wednesday, April 12, 2017

The Agony and the Ecstasy of Playing "Othello" in Globe’s “Red Velvet

There’s an irony that doesn’t go unnoticed in The Globe’s current production of “Red Velvet” by Lolita Chakrabarti and directed by Stafford Arima now playing through April 30th on the Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage.  

African American actor Ira Aldridge’s success as leading man in Shakespeare’s “Othello” is on trial here. Audiences will be privy to see and feel the full impact of the playwright’s reimaging of his story as played out beginning in Lodz Poland and ending back in Lodz in 1867. The story travels back to a time in 1833 when Aldridge (a commanding Albert Jones) was at the pinnacle of his success.  

Both agony and ecstasy are framed in a most profound way, with all the players in tact before our eyes, as Aldridge’s journey takes us on his short lived Covent Garden performance to ‘his decline and failing health.
Backstage in Lotz, Poland
It would take two hundred years after a white actor in blackface first performed Shakespeare’s “Othello” (1604) that the first African American, Ira Aldridge would take the lead as The Moor in London’s Royal Theatre in1826.

Before that he distinguished himself as a successful Shakespearean Actor and one of the mot accomplished American actors of the 19th century on foreign shores even though he was born in the U.S. At 17 he decided to move to England where race, he thought wouldn’t hinder him as much as it would in own country.

Aldridge was successful right up to that point. He performed as the leading man in “Macbeth” and “Richard III and even as Shylock all wearing light makeup and a wig. David Israel Reynoso's costumes are lush and colorful and class appropriate. They are enhanced by Jason Lyons lighting as is the entire production.   

It was a perfect storm: It was 1833 and Shakespearean actor Edmond Kean, the quintessential white in black face Othello, was unable to perform his usual role due to a fall. His son Charles Kean, a comically tragic and petulant figure, (John Lavelle) thought the role should automatically go to him.

Producer Pierre Laporte (Sean Dugan), a good friend and supporter of Aldridge offered him the part making this the first time a black actor would actually play a black character. After all, Aldridge had performed Othello to audience acclaim.

All this sounds wonderful and good except for his fellow actors appearing on stage with him. The reality was that a black actor upset the balance of their neatly organized troupe of performers including his leading lady Ellen Tree/ Desdemona (Allison Mack). But as a professional and one who seemed to have be taken with Aldridge, she was willing to go along with his new method of acting.

Cast of "Red Velvet"
We in turn see the rehearsals (he had one day to rehearse) and the actual performance of the ‘handkerchief’ scene played out over and over again. Unfortunately, his particular art of realistic acting (he is accused of bruising her arms among other more racial charges) as opposed to a more stilted was his undoing.

After his performance at Covent Gardens in 1833 to play the jealous lover in Shakespeare’s tragic “Othello”, reviewers in London not used to seeing an actual African American ‘manhandling’ a white woman, tore him apart. 

Heads were scratched, newspaper reviews were kept from the actor, he and Laporte argued back and forth (much too long) about the right thing to do etc., etc.

Albert Jones and Sean Dugan
They squabbled about his going on again. Their friendship was at stake and on the brink of dissolving, when the reality of the bad reviews hit the fan and the theatre that had never had a dark night due to lack of audience members, was forced to close temporarily.

To say the least, the reviewers were vicious against him even referring to him as a Ni****. He was forced to go back out on tour again, where he was favorably received in Ireland, Berlin, Stockholm and Brussels to name a few

Reconstructing history can be a tricky business. For the sake of agreement that Ms. Chakrabarti’s research and notes are as accurate as possible, “Red Velvet” is plush with images of backstage theatrical shenanigans, family infighting, theatre rehearsal halls, salons of the theatre’s famous and infamous and dressing rooms some with bare necessities others fully realized. (John Sherwood).

The play begins backstage on Lyon's dimly lit canvas with dressing table, chaise lounge and large trunk, when two young people barge on to the scene and begin blabbering in German for what seemed like an eternity.

This or may not have happened. For this reviewer, it matters not. It went on much too long and was too loud. The only significance yours truly found was the agony Aldridge felt on the way down (1867) as he applied whiteface makeup and dressed for his King Lear entrance.

Allison MAck and Albert Jones
In comparison, one couldn’t help notice the ecstasy and excitement in his preparation for “Othello” at Theatre Royal, Covent Garden, London back when he made his first entrance as the mighty Moor, short lived as it was.

Arima has filled Chakrabarti’s play with wonderfully colorful characters with competent actors to fill those shoes. Most are on top of their game. Listening in on the backstage gossip is part of the fun and angst the actors share about their other acting performances.

Standing out is Mark Pinter’s Terence, Aldridge’s servant and Bernard Warde one of the actors on the set. Amelia Pedlow’s convincing yet rather naïve Margaret Aldridge and annoyingly attractive actress Betty Lovell fit the bill. Local talent Monique Gaffney is perfect as the lone observer Connie the Jamaican servant who hears all but tells nothing.

And then of course Albert James is commanding as Ira Aldridge, the arrogant, magnificent, condescending, and beautiful and overbearing actor. My one objection is his over top shouting. Necessary? Don’t know but it didn’t impress.  His acting is brilliant and under different circumstances, I could watch him act all day.
Albert Jones and Monique Gaffney
My criticism of the play doesn’t rest with the ensemble. The play itself is a mixed bag. Distractions abound. The many accents of the characters are off-putting. Obscure funny lines elicit laughter from the audience. Yours truly either missed out on the fun or didn’t hear what was so funny. Parts are sketchy and underwritten and the long scene between Aldridge and Laporte seemed unnecessary.

What most impressed in this history lesson was the attitude, the camaraderie, the jealousy and the yes, the cruelty. 

In case you happen upon productions of “The Ira Aldridge Players” under the direction of Calvin Manson, don’t pass up the opportunity to catch their shows. Manson has been active in the San Diego community for over 40 years and has been on and off producing shows here.  Keep your eyes peeled.

For more detailed theatre history enjoy “Red Velvet”

See you at the theatre.

Dates: Through April 30th
Organization: The Old Globe
Phone: 619.234.5623
Production Type: Drama
Where: 1363 Old Globe Way,
Ticket Prices: Start at $29.00
Venue: Donald and Darlene Shiley Stage
Photo: Jim Cox


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