Red Velvet: As styles clash, so do underlying attitudes about change: in acting, racial casting, and politics.
Lolita Chakrabarti wrote a mediocre play about an important subject. The Old Globe Theatre’s puzzling, under-rehearsed opening night was no help.
There are great reasons why our Calvin Manson named his company the Ira Aldridge Players. Aldridge (1807–1867) was one of history’s finest actors. Though born in America, he rarely performed in his homeland. Shackled by racist attitudes and hounded by thugs, the proud African-American left for Liverpool in 1824. The move made sense because England had abolished slavery, and Parliament was considering abolition in the colonies.
In 1831 he changed his stage name to F. W. Keene. The switch paid tribute to Edmund Kean, the legendary tragedian (1787–1833). Aldridge also hoped the link would generate name recognition at the box office.
Aldridge loved Shakespeare so much he named his horse Shylock. He was famous for his Shakespearean roles and for addressing the post-curtain audience with an emphatic speech about the horrors of slavery.
The name change may have a deeper link. A legend persists that Aldridge was Kean’s servant on his first American tour, and that Kean took him to London and nurtured his love of theater.
Acclaimed in almost every European capital, Aldridge felt he lacked the ultimate triumph: to perform at Covent Garden’s Theatre Royale, Drury Lane — the center of the theatrical world at the time and home base of the renowned Kean.
In the late-1820s, Kean’s powers began to decline. Often called “untameably wild,” he resorted to “stimulants” to see him through. In March 1833, while playing Othello in blackface at the Theatre Royale, Kean collapsed in Act Three, scene three. He shouted to his son playing Iago, “Oh God, I am dying. Speak to them, Charles,” and fell into his son’s arms. He died May 15.
Red Velvet begins in 1867. As an infirm Aldridge prepares to play King Lear — in whiteface — a Polish journalist interviews him. They go back to 1833 when Aldridge’s dream came true. He took Kean’s place as Othello. The theater was famous for never cancelling a performance — i.e., for never “going dark.” When the company manager wants to substitute Aldridge for the ailing Kean, the expression acquires an ocean-wide irony. Aldridge went on. But in the eyes of allegedly open-minded Londoners and critics, he failed. A white man must play the Moor, wrote The Spectator: “An African is no more qualified to play Othello than a fat man is to play Falstaff.”
Red Velvet has one strong scene. Kean is out. The show must go on tonight. Told during a rehearsal that a black man will play the Moor, the cast tries to stifle reactions, including Charles Kean’s semi-veiled racism. When Aldridge arrives, he’s a game-changer. His more realistic acting style goes against the taffy-stretched emoting of the day. He tries to teach a more realistic technique. He’s still mannered, as when he greets Desdemona by flexing his knees like a Samurai warrior and extending his arm like a spear. He’s just less exaggerated than Kean’s troupe; they play front and gesture like windmills.
The scene’s funny and instructive. As styles clash, so do underlying attitudes about change: in acting, racial casting, and politics, since there’s an anti-slavery protest down the street. Other scenes, however, wouldn’t pass Playwrighting 1A. The conclusion’s a long, long monologue. While Aldridge applies greasepaint, the reporter kvetches. In the penultimate scene, when the company manager, Pierre LaPorte, must dismiss Aldridge, they have a near endless dialogue and conclude with a fight. It’s supposed to recall Othello and Desdemona but is so stagey and by-the-numbers you’d think we were back at the Royale in 1833 where stage fights tried mightily not to injure Kean.
That tame combat and the apparently under-rehearsed performances are on the Globe production, not the play. Instead of enhancing the script’s few strengths, the weaknesses were all the more glaring.
Red Velvet has characters from Poland, France, Jamaica, England, and America. Almost every accent was either wrong or overindulged. Example: in the final scene the reporter (Amelia Pedlow) does a tirade about her sorry plight in an often incomprehensible Polish accent. Sean Dugan’s Pierre LaPorte spoke Language Lab French, etc.
Another puzzle: throughout Act One, the cast shouted, with the leads jack-hammering hard stresses. In Act Two, everyone toned down. Was this a then vs. now styles “concept”? Or did someone rush into the dressing room at intermission and urge the actors to play just to the house, not Coronado Island?
Though lit too dimly, Jason Sherwood’s coffee brown, grained-wood set solves potential problems. An ancient arch, ornate on one side, blank on the other, revolves from backstage to the foot-lit front, and from 1867 to 1833. The rest of the Globe production could use his inventiveness.
1363 Old Globe Way, San Diego
Red Velvet, by Lolita Chakrabarti
Old Globe Theatre, 1363 Old Globe Way, Balboa Park
Directed by Stafford Arima; cast: Amanda Pedlow, Michael Aurelio, Mark Pinter, Albert Jones, Monique Gaffney, John Lavelle, Allison Mack, Sean Dugan; scenic design, Jason Sherwood, costumes, David Israel Reynoso, lighting, Jason Lyons, sound, Jonathan Deans.
Playing through April 30; Sunday, Tuesday, and Wednesday at 7:00 p.m. Friday and Saturday at 8:00 p.m. Matinee Saturday and Sunday at 2:00 p.m.; theoldglobe.org