Ira Aldridge, a 19th century black American actor, was Russia’s highest paid entertainer of his time, knighted in Britain and awarded the Pour le Merit award by the King of Prussia – some highlights of his distinguished career in Europe. Still, “Red Velvet,” the drama based on Aldridge’s life, doesn’t explore his many hits. Instead, this serious play, currently presented by the Shakespeare Theater Company, depicts the groundbreaking but tragic episode when Aldridge became the first black actor to lead a show on a London premiere stage, but only played two nights. as Othello before the racist backlash shut down production. .
A powerful cast packs the performance with nuance and emotion… earnest, high-caliber dramatic theatre…
Towards the end of his life, Ira Aldridge (Amari Cheatom) is on tour, preparing to play the lead role of “King Lear” when a headstrong young Polish journalist, Halina Wozniak (Tro Shaw), breaks into his room. for unauthorized maintenance. Stumbling on sensitive ground with her personal questions, she looks to her infidelities and out-of-wedlock children, as well as her short run decades earlier at the Covent Garden Theater in London, prompting an angry reaction from Ira . As the setting harkens back to that fateful time in London, we meet the cast of Covent Garden, in short their main man since acclaimed actor Edmund Kean fell ill. His pompous son, Charles Kean (Jaye Ayres-Brown), is outraged to learn that a black American has been recruited to step into his father’s shoes and play opposite his fiancée Ellen Tree (Emily DeForest), who plays Desdemona. Against the advice of his friend and colleague, Pierre Laporte (Michael Glenn), Ira, charismatic and confident, pushes the troupe towards new interpretations and styles of acting, unaware of the cruel reception that awaits him.
A powerful cast packs the performance with nuance and emotion. Cheatom, in the lead role, delivers new soliloquies and well-rehearsed Shakespeare with equal elegance. Shaw, triple cast as the ambitious Halina Wozniak, ditzy Betty Lovell and wise Margaret Aldridge, brings distinctive mannerisms to each character, aided by wigs designed by Danna Rosedahl. Connie (Shannon Dorsey) provides foil to Ira Aldridge as a Jamaican maid. Divided by class privilege, where Ira is naive, outspoken, and energetic, Connie is calm and world-weary. Dorsey brings a simmering anger to the role that commands attention, even when her character is often silent. Glenn also deserves praise for his sympathetic performance as the hypocrite Pierre, who states that “drama is a political act, a debate of our time”.
The technical design of “Red Velvet” is of classic splendor. An opulent King Lear costume hangs outside the lavish red curtains before the show, just one of Rodrigo Muñoz’s glamorous period costumes. The setting, often shrouded in fog in You-Shin Chen’s stage design, transforms to reveal three sets: a theater box adorned with large red accents, the stage of London’s Theater Royal, and a drawing room. A mixture of strings, piano and bells mark the transitions between the stopped pieces, conceived and composed by Karin Graybash. Yuki Nakase Link’s lighting isn’t subtle, but still effectively punctuates the reveals.
If you crave serious, high-caliber drama, “Red Velvet” will quench your thirst. Although viewers would certainly benefit from a familiarity with Shakespeare, especially “Othello”, it isn’t essential to enjoy the show. Bound by classic technical design and a terrific cast, director Jade King Carroll delivers an excellent play, overcoming multiple pandemic hiatuses.
Duration: 2h30 with a 15 minute intermission.
Age group: 13+
“Red Velvet” runs through July 17 at the Michael R. Klein Theater at the Lansburgh, Shakespeare Theater Company, 450 7th St NW, Washington, DC 20004. Tickets are available on line.