There is nothing more exciting for an audience than seeing a performance in a new style of acting, a first glimpse of the changing of the theatrical guard from a stagnant traditionalism into an electrifying rebirth of creativity. The Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey brought that excitement to life for modern audiences with Red Velvet, making its New Jersey debut at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison.
Red Velvet, the first play written by British actress Lolita Chakrabarti, tells the story of Ira Aldridge, the first African-American actor to play Othello on the London stage in 1833. Aldridge has been called in by an old friend, the play’s impresario, to replace the legendary actor Edmund Kean, who had collapsed on stage the previous night. Kean’s acting style – utilizing broad gestures and vocalizations, playing face front to the audience – is contrasted with Aldridge’s more naturalistic style, including playing the underlying emotions of the scene and connecting with the other actors on stage. While the audience and most of the other actors in the troupe feel invigorated by Aldridge’s new style, the London critics most definitely do not.
Playwright Chakrabarti pulls off a difficult feat in her playwriting debut. In telling the story of both the theatrical and societal upheavals brought about by Ira Aldridge’s performance as Shakespeare’s Moor, she never stoops to include any anachronisms that would distort the historical and biographical facts of her story. The play does not score points for overlaying modern concepts upon the facts of what happened at a particular time in a particular place, thereby warping historical truth. Director Bonnie J. Monte honors her playwright’s vision by not allowing the actors to portray their characters as purely heroes or purely villains, but as human beings feeling their way through uncharted territory, on the brink of changes of which they are not totally aware.
The five leading actors are individually brilliant amid a superb ensemble. Lindsay Smiling’s strong central performance as Ira Aldridge captures the conflicting natures of an actor – wanting to stay true to his vision of how acting should be, yet desiring the popularity and fortune that is due for his talent while suspicious of the fickle nature of audiences and critics. Victoria Mack’s Ellen Tree, Desdemona to Aldridge’s Othello, is a formidable stage partner, finding an exhilarating freedom by embracing the new style, while David Andrew Macdonald’s Charles Kean – son of Edmund, heir-apparent to his father’s style, and Ellen’s fiancé – defends the comfortable rightness of the old style, becoming almost incoherent when trying to explain why Ira Aldridge is so “obviously unsuited” to appear as Othello on any stage.
David Foubert as impresario Pierre Laporte captures, with an equally strong performance as Lindsay Smiling, the conflicting natures of the impresario – having to please a so-very-proper board of directors, placating all of his actors from stars on down, wanting to be in on something fresh and exciting, and needing to please audiences and critics just to keep the play running and earn the money needed to keep the theatre open. Foubert’s final scene with Smiling is a tour de force between two men with a common vision who can never completely understand each other. Finally, Sofia Jean Gomez gives strong performances both as Ira’s wife Margaret, supporting her husband with dignity and grace while seeing the possibility of some stability after long years of struggle, and as a young journalist who comes to interview Ira near the end of his life.
The high levels met by the technical departments at Shakespeare Theatre of NJ productions are maintained in this production. Newcomers Bethanie Wampol Watson and Burke Wilmore (scenic and lighting designers, respectively) and costume designer Paul Canada all serve to transport the audience back into the theatrical world of nineteenth century London.
I cannot go without praising the work of Artistic Director Bonnie J Monte. One need only see her back-to-back productions this season of Ionesco’s absurdist romance Exit the King and Red Velvet to know why she’s in her 26th season at the Shakespeare Theatre, and deservedly so. To a great extent, it is the artistic vision she brings to both the selection of plays for each new season and her skill directing individual plays during each season that has earned the Shakespeare Theatre its reputation as one of the state’s leading stages.
Plays and movies which focus on the behind-the-scenes drama of putting on a show have always, I believe, been extremely popular with audiences down through the ages. Red Velvet is a worthy addition to this genre. To capture that excitement when the new is emerging from the traditional, to get the satisfaction of seeing strong and well-written characters, both male and female, you must see this production of Red Velvet.
Red Velvet is being presented by the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at the F.M. Kirby Shakespeare Theatre on the campus of the Drew University in Madison through September 25th. For tickets and information, visit www.shakespearenj.org.