Chicago Theatre Review
Change Was in the Air
Red Velvet – Chicago Shakespeare Theatre
Lolita Chakrabarti’s fascinating biographic drama, which premiered in London in 2012 to much acclaim, was first seen in Chicago last year at Raven Theatre. Gary Griffin directs this larger scale Equity production for Chicago Shakespeare Courtyard venue. Chakrabarti’s play is based upon the true story of African American Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge. Prior to the Civil War and continually faced with racial discrimination in the States, Aldridge decided to emigrate to England. Motivated by Parliament’s outlawing of the slave trade, Aldridge and other actors of color were inspired to work there in jobs denied to them in America. Also, because it was the height of the Industrial Revolution and at a time of great economic prosperity, the expansion of the English Theatre offered everyone more roles and backstage positions.
In 1833 Edmund Kean, possibly the most popular British actor of his day, was starring as Othello at Covent Garden’s Royal Coburg Theater. When he suddenly falls gravely ill, Pierre LaPorte, the famed theatrical entrepreneur and manager, was faced with either closing his production or quickly finding a replacement. He decides to take a big chance by casting Ira Aldridge. The African-American actor had already earned accolades for his work in smaller theaters, but he would become the first black actor to portray Shakespeare’s famous Moor, at London’s most preeminent venue.
Kean’s son, Charles, an aspiring young actor himself, who’d labored in the shadow of his illustrious father, was filled with anger and resentment. He felt it was obvious that he should be the stand-in for his father. Then, when Charles discovered the new actor was Ira Aldridge, and the African-American would be playing opposite his girlfriend, Ellen Tree, Kean became especially outraged.
In the play, Aldridge is introduced to the surprised theatrical company, whereupon he begins his put-in rehearsal by instructing the supporting cast how to perform their roles in a more natural manner. The acting style of that period was far more theatrical. It was all declamation, wild histrionics and grand gestures. Aldridge attempts to convince his fellow actors to play their emotions with more realism. Thus we witness what might’ve been the first lesson in Method Acting in London theatre.
Gary Griffin has chosen to direct his production in-the-round. In doing so, he may have imagined that the story would become more intimate. But actually, the production feels less personal and even more theatrical. Most of the audience is seated too far away from the tiny rectangular acting area to feel at one with the actors; and the onstage audience complains that they primarily saw more of the actors’ backs. As at the Marriott Theatre in Lincolnshire, the scenic demands have to be minimal so that the audience is able to see all the actors from every angle. There are no walls or doorways in this vision, and the aisles are used for entrances and exits.
Scenic designer Scott Davis has met the challenge by simply dressing his modest stage with an assortment of period furniture. But the dominating visual of this production is a massive red velvet act curtain that’s raised and lowered as necessary. It’s a gorgeous crimson Austrian drape, or puff curtain, featuring a series of fancy swags and festoons that bespeaks a bygone era. In this production, it also serves as a symbol of the English Theatre during the mid-19th century.
Costumed in Mara Blumenfeld’s outstanding authentic and beautiful period fashions, and coiffed in perfect wigs and hair styles by Richard Jarvie, Griffin’s production looks authentic and genuine. The production is bathed in Christine Binder’s lighting, Christopher Kriz’s spot-on sound design and Jenny Giering’s lush original score. Kudos to David Woolley for his realistic fight choreography and to Eva Breneman for her detailed attention to dialect guidance.
Griffin’s cast is very good. Led by Dion Johnstone, one the Stratford Festival’s most acclaimed actors, his Ira Aldridge comes alive with real passion and dignity. The actor makes the transition from aging theatrical master to eager young actor and back again, with ease. Johnstone makes the audience feel all his pain and suffer the humiliation at how he’s ultimately treated. Charles Kean is portrayed with fire and commitment by the talented Michael Hayden. His bias and bigotry is understandable in historical context and obvious to the audience.
Not every character in the company feels the same as Kean. Their collective attitude toward the African-American actor ranges from adoration to indignation. The gifted Chaon Cross, playing actress Ellen Tree, has particularly fallen under Aldridge’s spell. She enjoys learning from him, playing opposite his Othello and is even willing to endure his physicality in the role. Jurgen Hooper, as young Thespian Henry Forester, is more neutral but open to acceptance. He soon becomes swayed, however, by the company members who feel Aldridge has overstepped his bounds.
Roderick Peeples, playing the more pompous elder member of the company, Bernard Ward, appears to represent the more populist, guardedly racist point-of-view. Always wonderful in any role she plays, Bri Sudia brings her signature comic brilliance to the cameo role of actress Betty Lovell; Tiffany Renee Johnson is observant, noble and quietly refined as the company’s Jamaican maid, Connie; Annie Purcell is particularly brilliant, playing both a determine Polish news reporter as well as Ira’s charming wife, Margaret.
Greg Matthew Anderson, so magnificent in countless productions at the Goodman, Writers and Northlight Theatres, to name a few, is incredible here as Pierre LaPorte. His strong portrayal of a respected gentleman trying to do the right, professional thing, but forced to make decisions contrary to his own beliefs, is beautiful and breathtaking. Near the end of this play Anderson and Johnstone engage in a gripping, violent argument that’ll leave audiences shaken to the core. It’s the defining moment of this production.
Lolita Chakrabarti’s engaging biographical play sheds light on a little-known, racially motivated incident in theatrical history. The playwright creates the moment when change was in the air, and a renowned African American actor tried to break into the world of white, professional theatre. She also allows audiences a peek at understanding what’s involved when a noted actor falls ill and has to quickly be replaced. We also observe, firsthand, how bizarre the archaic and declarative 19th century style of acting was before a more realistic approach was later employed. We witness one actor’s attempt to instruct and change several things, from performance style to the acceptance of African-Americans as thoughtful, caring human beings with intelligence and feelings. In this, Gary Griffin’s production truly excels.
Reviewed by Colin Douglas
Presented December 1-January 21 by Chicago Shakespeare Theatre in the Courtyard Theatre on Navy Pier.
Tickets are available in person at the box office, by calling 312-595-5600 or by going to www.ChicagoShakes.com.
Additional information about this and other area productions can be found by visiting www.theatreinchicago.com.