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Adagio Teas
   Features  >  NY Theater Reviews

 
RED VELVET
at St. Ann’s Warehouse

PAINTED BLACK
By MATT WINDMAN

  Adrian Lester/ Ph: Tristram Kenton

Adrian Lester, who won much acclaim for his performance as Othello in the National Theatre’s recent modernized staging of the Shakespeare tragedy (which was screened in the U.S. as part of the National Theatre Live series), is playing Othello again, but in a very different context.

Lester is now playing Ira Aldridge, an African American who made history as the first black actor to portray Othello at the Covent Garden in London in 1833, in Red Velvet, a historic drama penned by Lester’s wife Lolita Chakrabarti. Originally produced at the Tricycle Theatre in London, Red Velvet is currently receiving a short run at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn.

Using an old-fashioned flashback structure, Aldridge is first seen in 1867 entering a theater in Poland, getting ready to play King Lear that night. An eager, young Polish woman, apparently a journalist, hides in his dressing room in hopes of gaining an in-depth interview. After some arrogant displays from Aldridge, the actor eases up and begins to reminisce about filling in for an ailing Edmund Kean as Othello at age 26, which leads into 1833.

At the time, the idea of having a black actor play Othello (as opposed to a Caucasian actor in blackface) was controversial. Kean’s son Charles, who was playing Iago to his father’s Othello and longed to play the Moor himself, expresses resentment at the French theater manager’s plan to cast Aldridge, who was touring in Othello in the provinces at the time. However, Ellen Tree, the actress playing Desdemona, who happens to be Charles’ fiancée, is open to the idea and freely debates with Aldridge over proper pronunciation and acting style. Aldridge, it turns out, is in favor of realism and greater physical contact between the actors.

The handkerchief scene from Othello, seen as part of the performance-within-the-play, which is done under the glow of footlights in a hokey style of still poses, loud delivery and facing the audience, looks amateurish and hammy by today’s standards.

It turns out that the critics responded to Aldridge with open racism. One opined that “the shape of his lips” rendered Aldridge unable to handle the text. Another found the casting to be unnecessarily literal, claiming that being black gave Aldridge no more right to play Othello than an overweight man would have to play Falstaff. The final moment, when Aldridge is seen playing Lear is whiteface, is especially jarring.

In an unusual move, St. Ann’s Warehouse offers audience members not just a playbill but a multi-page, single-spaced timeline that discusses changes in the slave trade and Shakespearian performance. I noticed many audience members studying the timeline during intermission and even the performance itself.

While Aldridge is a fascinating figure to explore and Lester offers a driven, multi-faceted performance that stresses Aldridge’s complexities, passions and regrets (under the direction of Indhu Rubasingham), the fact remains that the play is so stilted and heavy-handed that it undercuts the story. The tone could also be less melancholic. One can’t help but wonder what another playwright might do with the same subject matter. Perhaps there is a way to link these events with the contemporary controversies over colorblind casting.

 


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