Category Archive for: ‘Steve Murray’

Red Velvet 8

Red Velvet

 Red Velvet: Drama. Book by Lolita Chakrabarti.  Directed by Margo Hall. Starring: Devin O’Brien, Elena Wright, Richard Louis James, Britney Frazier, Susi Damilano, Tim Kniffin, Patrick Russell, and Carl Lumbly. SF Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco, CA

 There’s a tragedy happening in Margo Hall’s wonderful West Coast premiere of Red Velvet, and it’s not the staging of Othello, the play within this play. It’s the true story of racism and bigotry played out on the stage of Victorian England during its battle for the abolition of slavery. One need only look in our recent history for black figures that paid high prices for paving the way towards equality: Martin Luther King, Jackie Robinson, and Bessie Smith. The same scenario is played out by Ira Aldridge, a breakthrough Shakespearean actor, who dared challenge the white norms of theatre.

Set in a theatre in Lodz, Poland in 1867, we’re introduced to a travel worn, weary and ill Aldridge preparing for yet another role as Othello, the Moor of Venice. Questioned by a novice reporter about his failed run at London’s historic Theatre Royal at Covent Garden, the play flashes back to that ill-fated production of 1833.

Carl Lumbly as Ira Aldridge

Carl Lumbly as Ira Aldridge

When the troupes star Edmund Kean falls ill, the bold producer Pierre LaPorte (Patrick Russell) brings in Aldridge as Othello, much to the horror of the cast. Even with his solid reviews, Aldridge is a hard sell, and when he dares to offer acting suggestions to his counterparts, all hell breaks loose. In his support of Aldridge, LaPorte tries to boost his confidence by quoting Pierre Corneille: “To win without risk is to triumph without glory”, which brilliantly sums up Aldridge’s raison d’être.

Bernard Warde (Richard Louis James), Henry Forrester (Devin O'Brien), Charles Kean (Tim Kniffin) and Ellen Tree (Susi Damilano) read the bad reviews of Othello

Bernard Warde (Richard Louis James), Henry Forrester (Devin O’Brien), Charles Kean (Tim Kniffin) and Ellen Tree (Susi Damilano) read the bad reviews of Othello

Carl Lumbly is positively luminous as Aldridge, self-assured in his craft and dedicated to paving the way for a new concept in acting that would evolve the established conventions. It’s bravura, multi-layered performance both confident and full of pathos. Resistance to Aldridge’s casting is strong, especially from fellow actors Bernard Warde and Charles Kean, played with repugnant ignorance by Richard Louis James and Tim Kniffin respectively. Only Susi Damilano as the intrigued thespian Ellen Tree is willing to learn from Aldridge’s passionate style. The “old” style supporters see theater as an escape from reality versus a new forward thinking realism.

The first act sets the dramatic stage within the stage, with Gary English’s beautiful set design and Abra Berman’s lovely costuming setting the perfect atmosphere. Act II delivers the tragic circumstances of Aldridge’s ruin; his challenging of the established order, his daring to assume that a black man could take his place in the rigid theatrical hierarchy, and his bold bi-racial marriage that feels like a slap to the face of prescribed social order. Even is friend and supporter LaPorte is compelled to abandon is friend and fire Aldridge.

Hall’s direction is excellent and the ensemble cast including Devin O’Brien as the optimistic Henry Forrester, Elena Wright in multiple roles and Britney Frazier as the spunky maid Connie rise to the strong material. Red Velvet, which premiered in 2012 at London’s Tricycle Theatre, has enduring importance in its message and SF Playhouse’s production has delivered on that promise.

In the final scene, back in the dressing room at a provincial theatre in Lodz, the frail and bitter Aldridge dresses once again to play Lear, and we see and hear the angry voices of his past weighing heavily on his exhausted shoulders. Beat down by struggles, Aldridge can’t escape the fate of being an innovator. How ironic it is that Othello, a role he had to fight to play, resonates so perfectly the themes of racism, love, jealousy, betrayal, revenge and repentance.

Performances are May 10th thru June 30th, 2016. 415.677.9596

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