A scarlet curtain lines the stage of the Theatre Royal in Covent Garden, London with a controversy lurking on either side. Outside, angry Londoners flood the streets protesting the 1833 Slavery Abolition Act just recently passed in Parliament. Inside, the cast of Othello objects to the addition of Ira Aldridge, one of the first high profile African-American actors of his time, to their ranks.
Based on the true story of the 19th century acting legend, the Philadelphia Premiere of Red Velvet at Lantern Theater Company measures the consequence of audacity both on the stage and in the wings. The interplay in Lolita Chakrabarti’s searing script draws its most stirring moments from the questioning of what art may hope to accomplish in changing social constructs. In this version of an ongoing conversation we still grapple with today, one actor in the company contends, “Theater is a political act.” Another asserts, “People come to the theater to get away from reality.”
Director Peter DeLaurier wrestles with these issues athletically, staging the powerful standoffs and quiet venomous implications with equal passion. His astute use of the St. Stephen’s stage transforms the unique thrust with all the glamour of a Covent Garden proscenium and the loneliness of a stark dressing room. And while racial issues may be at the forefront of the plot, DeLaurier’s attention to the performative 19th century theater styles buoys the play’s seriousness and transports us to 1833.
Up until this moment in history a Londoner would often see the character of Othello, the famous Moor taken down from great heights by his rage and suspicion, portrayed by a white actor in blackface. Aldridge stepped onto the London stage with a long list of successful credits in other major cities, yet was met with vitriolic reviews from the press claiming his race made him unfit to play the part. After filling the role in the absence of an ailing Edmund Kean, he would play a total of two performances before he was dismissed. Aldridge’s real-life circumstances serve a dual purpose in this context; both as the haunting echoes of Othello’s turn of fate and the portentous warning of the struggles that continue to lie ahead.
Portraying the great Aldridge himself, Tony nominee Forrest McClendon leads a distinctly strong cast, while he embodies the passion, glory, and exasperation of the man who was a leader in his craft. Equally matched, the always luminous Liz Filios shines in her three roles – Halina Wozniak, Betty Lovell, and Margaret Aldridge – and feasts on the theatrical history while skillfully propelling the action. Lauren Sowa portrays a focused and powerful Ellen Tree, eager to devour fresh acting methods and take a risk with her new costar. Filling out Aldridge’s prestigious and varied cast are Bernard Warde (David Bardeen), Charles Kean (Adam Hammet), and Henry Forester (David Pica), supported with quiet strength by Ebony Pullum as Connie. Managing the troupe of actors, Damon Bonetti gives a beautifully dimensional performance as Pierre LaPorte, tortured by his ongoing battle of art versus commerce.
DeLaurier constructs a richly textured world with the flexible and striking visuals created by Scenic Designer Meghan Jones and Lighting Designer Lily Fossner. Sound Designer Christopher Colucci fills the action with the plaintive moan of cellos and the deep echoes of an empty theater as the storm brews just outside. And Costume Designer Janus Stefanowicz captures the sumptuousness of London at the time with an unmistakable theatrical flair for this unique group of thespians.
Despite a few mismatched moments and an unnecessary framing device, the surface of Chakrabarti’s historical alignment brings to light the struggles of an African-American actor in a white dominated profession, some of which can still be seen on today’s stages. What her play-within-a-play discovers is a talented and highly valued man who strives for greater justice in his career, only to be rejected and maligned for his voraciousness. From this nexus grows an ever more condemning look at how we face controversy and the choices we make between courage and cowardice.
Running Time: Two hours and 20 minutes, with an intermission.
Red Velvet plays through October 8, 2017 at Lantern Theater Company, performing at St. Stephen’s Theater – 10th & Ludlow Streets, in Philadelphia, PA. For tickets, call the box office at (215) 829-0395, or purchase them online.