Monday, May 22, 2017

Review - Red Velvet - Walking Shadow - A Play For Theater Nerds - 3 stars

If you’re a hardcore theater nerd, Walking Shadow’s production of Lolita Chakrabarti’s play Red Velvet is for you.  I thought I was a theater nerd, but there’s apparently a level beyond my devotion which involves a different knowledge of theater history - and figures therein - which I lack.  The upside is that a play like Red Velvet could teach me a lot if it wanted to.  The downside is that Red Velvet wasn’t really interested in doing that.  As far as the script is concerned, I could catch up or sit confused until it was over, then do a little research to put the whole thing in context (which is pretty much how things went for me).

“Everything looks bad from a certain angle.”

Really, the only person I was nominally familiar with prior to seeing Red Velvet was Edmund Kean, a celebrated British Shakespearean actor, perhaps most commonly known for having his last words reported as “dying is easy, comedy is hard.” But Mr. Kean is only name-checked in Red Velvet.  It is his unfortunate state of health, collapsing onstage during a production of Othello at the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden in London, that creates the space for another actor’s big break, which is the real subject of Red Velvet. Kean’s collapse has pushed him offstage before the play even begins.

“So I should play what I feel? How avant garde!”

So what are we left with? The theater producer, Pierre Laporte (Andy Schnabel), takes the setback of losing his famous leading man to make a radical change. This is 1833 England.  The role of Othello is traditionally played by a white man in blackface.  Laporte decides to hire an actual black man to do the job.  That new actor is Ira Aldridge (JuCoby Johnson).  Aldridge is now widely considered to be the first African-American star of the English-speaking theater world.  Red Velvet here is digging into Aldridge’s origin story.  It’s a bumpy ride.  For context, though the story is set in Europe, 1833 isn’t just pre-U.S. civil rights movement by almost a century, it’s also pre-U.S. Civil War.  Not the most enlightened time for race relations anywhere.

“I’m just saying, people see what they look for.”

Half the previously all-white cast of Kean’s Othello is scandalized, half is intrigued.  Edmund Kean’s son Charles (Ty Hudson), in the role of Iago, learned Shakespeare directly from his famous father and is none too pleased about a young black man stepping into his father’s role in the play and the company.  Their famous lead actor would also serve as a director, offering suggestions to the other actors on their portrayals. Aldridge tries to do the same and gets a lot of pushback. Charles’ mood isn’t helped by the fact that their leading lady and Desdemona, Ellen Tree (Elizabeth Efteland), is also dating Charles.  Seeing a black man acting opposite a white woman, pretending to be her husband would be bad enough. To take her hand and kiss it? Scandalous.

“If we don’t take responsibility for our work then what are we doing here?”

[I had to be reminded, after the show, that Ellen Tree was also a very big deal in the history of theater at that time. She even played Romeo (which the script makes a nod to, but that’s pretty much all the hint I got that she might be something more than just the standard company ingenue). Ellen and Charles would later marry and take their husband and wife classical theater act on the road, making themselves even more famous in the process.  The writer of Red Velvet knows this, everyone producing Red Velvet knows this, but honestly, the audience could probably use more help than the script seems willing to give.]

“I think in order to act spontaneity, one must always know what’s coming.”

Because Tree is willing to give Aldridge a chance, the supporting players in the company (Sulia Rose Altenberg and Bear Brummel) are also willing to go along.  Another supporting player, Bernard Ward (Michael Lee), at first sides with Charles, but when Charles storms off and Bernard realizes that means that he finally gets to play the lead role of Iago, he’s also more willing to play along with Laporte’s theatrical social experiment.  The only other person of color in the place is the theater’s housemaid Connie (Kiara Jackson), and she’s more comfortable keeping herself out of the middle of this.

“Unfortunately money doesn’t guarantee character.”

Now, the play Red Velvet is originally out of London, and I’m sure everyone in the theater community there is much more steeped in the history and tradition of that theater than a guy living in the Midwest U.S. is. They probably need less handholding in that regard than I apparently require.  Red Velvet is Chakrabarti’s first play, and it premiered at London’s famed Tricycle Theatre, then moved on to a run in New York. Chakrabarti won three awards for it and was nominated for three more, so honestly, who the heck am I to question the thing?  Consider the pedigree of the play, consider the source of the review.  Your mileage may vary.

“Are we doing the right thing?”
“We’ll find out soon enough.”

The weirdest thing about the structure of the play is that it is bookended by Aldridge at the end of his life, on tour doing Shakespeare’s leading men, the final stop being in Lodz, Poland. (Aldridge doesn’t know this is the final stop, that his health problems are finally going to catch up with him in Poland.  But honestly, neither does the audience. The script uses this pivotal moment, but doesn’t give it much context. Again, I learned this after by doing some digging,) Aldridge has his own personal assistant (Lee, again), and is pursued by a scrappy young Polish newspaper reporter (Alternberg again) with the help of a local stage hand who doesn’t speak English (Brummel again). These all seem to be the trappings of success (and spotchecking history after the show, they indeed were). But the friend who attended with me was just as convinced it could be that the Poland stop on the tour was an indication that he now only plays out in the hinterlands, a has-been who never was, undone by the prejudice at the beginning of his career which the flashback making up the bulk of the middle of the show recounts for us.

“You give everything, and you can’t tell if it worked, can you?”

Part of the reason we were confused is that the reality of Aldridge’s actual career means that, really, there’s no suspense in the play. There he is, right in front of us, at the end of a long successful career. Yes, it’s unsettling (as it should be) to see him running into one metaphorical brick wall after another due to racist attitudes - which, honestly, still linger today in all corners of society (even among supposedly liberal, progressive theater people). We know he overcomes this. We don’t get to see how. What we do get to see is people rehearsing Othello, people performing Othello, people reading the reviews of Othello.  The “teapot” style of acting (as Ellen Tree calls it) is jarring to watch, and pretty funny. 19th century theater performing Shakespeare did a lot of proclaiming, facing out and trying to project up into the cheap seats in the far balconies. Not a lot of subtlety, actor interaction onstage or psychological realism going on at the time.  And again, all of this will make a lot more sense if you’ve read or seen a production of Othello before.  I can’t imagine how someone out of that context might be processing large chunks of Red Velvet.

“We sit through lifeless plays that say nothing about who we are.”

Also, weirdly, Red Velvet seems to be more about white people’s racism than it is about the person who is the recipient of it.  Ira Aldridge is the most interesting character here, but there’s a whole lot of white people crowding him out of his own story.  The play keeps indicating it wants to be about him, but the end result finds him too often absent.  Plays create their own world, whether they’re based on true stories or not.  If you have to do research or read extensive program notes prior to a play just to understand on even a basic level what the relationships are and what’s going on, I feel like the play’s not fully doing its job.

“That’s the beauty of being an actor.  You just play your part and go home.”

If you want a peek backstage into the process of putting together a show, Red Velvet definitely gets the details right. The whole ensemble does a great job of working together to create their own particular environment.  JuCoby Johnson is a great actor to build a show around - he’s the right choice to embody an important figure like Aldridge.  But despite having watched the whole thing, I’m at a loss to say what exactly the point was for my watching it.  I’m happy to know Ira Aldridge existed now.  I guess I just wish there was more of him in Walking Shadow's production of Red Velvet. (playing now through May 28, 2017 at the Southern Theater)

3 Stars - Recommended

(photo of JuCoby Johnson as Ira Aldrich in Red Velvet; photography by John Heimbuch)

No comments: