Playwright Lolita Chakrabarti’s “Red Velvet,” with superb direction by Margo Hall, manages to cover a lot of territory in a little over two hours. After years of rewrites, dedication, and research, she has crafted a wonderful work which hangs together beautifully. Chakrabarti cleverly framed her play by opening and closing it in on an ailing Ira Aldridge’s (a mesmerizing Carl Lumbly) hotel room in Poland where he’s preparing to go on stage as King Lear in white-face, his final performance of his life (of course he doesn’t know this at the time. He died in Lodz, Poland in 1867). A novice Polish female newspaper reporter, Helena Wozniak (Elena Wright, nailing a Polish accent; Wright also doubles as Margaret Aldridge, Ira’s English-born wife) had broken in, aided by a smitten stage hand (Devin O’Brien) to confront him for an interview. In their exchange, he treats her as his inferior and berates her for her ineptness. The majority of the play takes place in 1833 in London’s Covent Garden.
Chakrabarti’s play is based on a significant slice of the real-life American actor, Ira Aldridge. He had been hired by Covent Garden’s Pierre LaPorte (Patrick Russell executing a believable French accent) to replace the King of the London stage, Edmund Kean, who had collapsed the previous night, in Shakespeare’s “Othello.” LaPorte had done his research on Aldridge and assuredly introduces him to the rest of the cast, who are both intrigued and shocked. Outraged, Edmund Kean’s son Charles, (a rather bland Tim Kniffin in what seemed to be an underwritten role), who was engaged to actress Ellen Tree, co-starring as Desdemona, protested vehemently against Aldridge not only for his race, but that he felt the role was his. In the background we hear the abolitionist’s anti-slavery protests; smoke, shouts and noise can be seen and heard whenever anyone enters or exits. (Britain passed the Slavery Abolition Act in 1833, a mere three months after Aldridge’s debut, while America didn’t end slavery till December, 1865.) One of the actors expounds the usual capitalistic rationalization for slavery.
Lumbly gets across Aldridge’s confidence by demonstrating that he is comfortable wherever he is and whatever he is doing. He goes so far as to convince his fellow actors to try a more naturalistic style of acting, to jettison the stylized “teapot” technique adapted from opera. This attitude makes everyone around him uncomfortable, except, of course, Pierre; yet more fascinating is his Desdemona co-star, Ellen Tree’s (a flirtatious Susi Damilano), reaction. We wait, holding our breath, waiting for the touch. When it comes, his cast-mates, except for Tree, gasp. Unfortunately for the theatre and the times that weren’t ready for it, Aldridge carried his Othello too far in his final scene with Desdemona, allegedly harming her which caused the cancellation of the play, Aldridge’s dismissal, and the theatre to go dark after only two performances. That Aldridge’s wife, Margaret (Elena Wight) was white, and English born, seemed all the more reason to denigrate him.
Carl Lumbly as Ira Aldrige and Suzi Damilano as Ellen Tree rehearse a scene from Othello in Red Velvet at SF Playhouse
The energy of the principal actors was often co-opted by the silence and placid demeanor of the maid, Connie (beautifully realized by Britney Frazier.) We, in the audience, had to purposely turn our head to see Connie’s reactions to all the stage business going on on the other side of the room. Dressed in her uniform-black dress, white apron, and cap- she sat behind a table laden with china service, cutlery, snacks, and decanters. The others behaved as though she didn’t exist until they ordered her to serve tea and refreshments, then she would glide across the floor, carrying her tray. However, her underplayed facial expressions reveal her revulsion and hurt at some of the ignorant and insensitive comments from the others that she overheard regarding Aldridge. At one particularly vile remark, she, unnoticed, gulps down a glass of liquor. And at one point, she has a revealing, simmering exchange with him.
Special praises for costume designer Abra Berman; wig designer Tabitha McBride; the lighting and set designers: Kurt Landisman and Gary English; and the marvelous projections by Theodore J. H. Hulsker.
At SF Playhouse, 540 Post Street, San Francisco through through June 30, 2016. Go to sfplayhouse.0rg for more information.