Sunday, May 15, 2016

"Red Velvet"

Red Velvet
Lolita Chakrabarti

The Cast of "Red Velvet"
A play a decade in the writing about a story of a Shakespeare actor nine score years in the telling bursts onto the stage with fever, fervor, and fury that the Bard himself would surely admire.  That this classical actor is a black American, son of a straw-farming preacher and a floor-scrubbing mother, who has immigrated to England in the 1820s to pursue a career that lands him on the famed Coventry Gardens stage is intriguing enough to perk interest.  But that he becomes the first black actor ever to appear on a London stage at a time when riots are occurring in the streets due to the recent abolition of slavery and further that he does so as the Moor Othello who kills his white wife Desdemona is more than enough to imagine a play packed with historical importance, gripping theatrics, and one man’s bravery.  With direction, staging, and a cast that excel in every dimension, San Francisco Playhouse presents the West Coast premiere of award-winning actress and writer Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet, a play with several plays within the play, all of them worthy of much notice.

Carl Lumbly as Ira Aldridge
The main storyline is a set of two plays -- a bookending one about the aging, ailing Ira Aldridge preparing for what will be his sunset role as King Lear in Lodz, Poland in 1867 and a middle one that occurs in his memory bank about the time he played Othello almost thirty-five years earlier.  Carl Lumbly is nothing short of astounding in the role of the actor Aldridge as he towers above all around him in stature, dignity, and confidence.  As he is about to ready himself for Lear, he tolerates with some smirks the pressing, popcorn-speed questions of a young Polish reporter, Halina (Elena Wright), who is incessant in probing about a past he clearly is reluctant to recall (at least out loud). 

But remember he does; and we now find ourselves backstage in a rehearsal hall of 1833’s Coventry Garden where a group of actors are surmising all the ‘bump ups’ that will occur among them since their famed Othello lead, Edmund Kean, has fallen ill.  Eleana Wright has magically transformed in barely an eye flash from Polish journalist to now a young English actress, Betty Lovell.  She is joined by old and cantankerously raspy Bernard Warde (another quick change, this time by Richard Louis James from the elder butler of 1867 Aldridge); the absolutely elegant in billowing, purple gown actress Ellen Tree (Susi Damilano); and a young perky, pleasant actor Henry Forester (Devin O’Brien whom we earlier saw as a German-speaking-only houseboy of 1867 Aldridge).  The son of the failing Edmund Kean, Charles (Tim Kniffin), is there, too, who is sure, along with everyone else, that the role of Othello is now his inherited right.  But their French director, Pierre LaPorte, arrives bustling about in all directions announcing in an ever-so-coy, even mischievous manner that he has found an acclaimed actor from the countryside to play the Moor.   When he says the name “Ira Aldridge,” several note they in fact have read his positive notices while the now-wide-eyed and slightly chuckling Henry admits he has actually seen Mr. Aldridge act.

Susi Damilano as Ellen Tree
The immediate, miffed reactions that Charles emits when he hears that he will not be Othello are miniscule to the series of unbelieving and uneasy smiles, full-mouthed gapes, and stunned stares Mr. Kniffen shows when the lead-actor-to-be walks elegantly in -- the very black Ira Aldridge.  Charles’ indignation will only grow as rehearsals commence, erupting eventually into an anger outburst and visceral scream of disgust that sends shockwaves deep into our audience.  Too much it is for him when the just-arrived, truly handsome, dark-skinned actor actually touches and then kisses the ivory hand of his fiancé, the leading lady Ellen, playing Desdemona to Aldridge’s Othello.

Charles’ reaction is echoed, if not by immediate intensity, then by under-breath remarks of the elder stage statesman, Bernard, who will later snidely remark, “An African (with flat nose and fat lips) is no more competent to play Othello  ... than a fat man is Falstaff.”  Much more accepting, after some initial discomfort, is Ellen Tree, who quickly warms up to her role opposite this anomaly as the two block out several scenes to the still-stunned looks of the others. 

They fall into a fascinating pattern of suggesting and accepting acting tips that reflect the transformation that stage acting was undergoing at the time.  Theatre was moving from stilted, face-the-audience-only manners of spouting lines as if giving a speech (known as teapot acting due to the tendency to stand with one arm extended and one bent at the hip) into more natural, face-each-other acting, with emotions that appeared genuine and not over-played.  To the increasing delight of Ellen and Henry and to the scornful humphs of Bernard and Charles, this intruding, black neophyte is the one now telling these accomplished stars how to act in these new modes.

One of the stellar aspects of Margo Hall’s many inspired directorial decisions is the silent, background actors who are continuously noting in expression and stance their reactions of what is happening in the stage’s foreground.  Chief among these is Britney Frazier as a young, black maid who mostly sits at a back-corner tea service table and whose eye shifts, head jerks, and slight movements of hands are an ongoing panorama of activity well worth full attention.

What happens after the Convent Garden play’s debut and with the budding friendship and mutual admiration between the two leads should be seen and not recounted here.  Needless to say, history shows that the actual, critical reactions of this Othello were in 1833 just as viscous and vitriol as what we might expect would have been written in the 1850s (or 1950s) of the Southern USA.  Unfortunately, more than once during the hate-filled blasts on this 1833 stage does it seem quite possible to imagine almost the same exchanges could now occur in far too many modern living rooms or bars about the threats of transgender-, Muslim-, or Mexican-American citizens of the U.S.

Within this captivating story, there is a wonderful commentary and debate among these actors about the world of theater itself -- a world whose rows of seats are alluded to by the very title of the play itself.  The undercurrent threads about theatre are as applicable today as in the nineteenth century.  Is the role of theatre to be where people come with the intention of “getting away from reality” (as Charles advocates), or is it to prompt within them the desire to “change” and “progression” as young Henry argues?  Should actors push boldly with new techniques and messages, as Ira Aldridge wants, or listen to the more cautious advice of Pierre, knowing, “This audience is older ... They will accept if we tread carefully ... softly.”  (The latter comment caused quite a tittering among our older-leaning audience.)  The actor-audience relationship is vividly captured by an intense Ira when he says in hushed tone, “You give all you can give ... Exposed ... And then you look out there at all those faces.”  As an actor, he notes to the young Polish journalist, “This is what I do ... and I always do it alone!” 

Even donors and critics get their due in this underlying play within the grander play.  Ira smirks to Ellen, “Unfortunately, money does not guarantee character” (with more laughs coming from the Opening Night’s, producing donor attendees).  Of journalists (and thus critics), the elder Ira snaps at the young Polish reporter, “You exist because I do ... Without me, you’d be less than you already are ... You are artless” (at which time, this reviewer and several around me shifted with sheepish looks in our seats).

Carl Lumbly and Susi Damilano as Othello and Desdemona
The final play within the play occurs at the end of Act One as Carl Lumbly and Susi Damilano bring each audience member to seat’s edge as they recreate the scene in Othello where the King confronts his young Queen about the missing handkerchief he has given her, all the while she insists he go see Casio, whom he is sure she now loves instead of him.  Within the blink of an eye, these two veteran actors convince us we are actually at SF Playhouse to watch a stellar performance of one of Shakespeare’s finest.  The acuteness of their acting grabs and holds our admiring attention; and when suddenly the act of our play ends in the middle of their simulated act, more than just I want them to continue the rest of Othello before retuning to Red Velvet.

Gary English creates through his set and projection design a massive and majestic space that does the Coventry and nineteenth, theatrical England full justice.  He is enabled completely by the beautiful lighting and both subtle and soaring sound effects of Kurt Landisman and Theodore J.H. Hulsker, respectively.  And there cannot be enough kudos showered on Abra Berman for costumes that are visually and historically superb.

So many reasons exist to rush for tickets for this exceptional evening of history on stage:  intelligent and imaginative direction, a cast that could hardly be better suited for their roles, and a production that sparkles in all respects.  San Francisco Playhouse continues to be the City’s most trusted venue for consistently high-quality theatre; and the current Red Velvet is no exception.

Rating: 5 E

Red Velvet continues through June 25, 2016 at San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco.  Tickets are available at  or by calling 415-677.9596.

Photos by Ken Levin

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