Regional Reviews: San Diego
The Old Globe's Red Velvet is, on one level, such a piece. Its central character, Ira Aldridge, is known to have broken the color barrier to play Shakespeare's Othello at a time when standard performance practice was to cast a white actor who wore dark make-up, often "black face." Mr. Aldridge's success led to the formation of a number of African-American theatre companies that bear his name (San Diego has one of those companies).
But Red Velvet isn't an American play. It was written by Lolita Chakrabarti, a British woman of Asian descent. It is set in Britain and Poland, starting at a time when Britain was banning the slave trade in its colonies and ending well into the Victorian era. While based on historical events, particularly Mr. Aldridge's London debut as Othello, it has a lot more on its mind, including the sometime hidebound nature of theatrical practice, the social and cultural significance of British and European theatre, and the psyche of a black man in a white world.
It's intended to be a star vehicle, and Adrian Lester, Ms. Chakrabarti's spouse, played Aldridge in both London and New York. Here, the Globe has cast Shakespearian actor Albert Jones in the leading role and surrounded him with a cast based in New York, Los Angeles, and San Diego. Mr. Jones, in particular, and the rest of the cast do an admirable job with a script that might leave audiences puzzling over its various layers.
The play opens in Poland, near the end of Aldridge's life. He is living alone, his wife of 40 years having predeceased him. A young reporter (Amelia Pedlow) who finds him to be an oddity among the population of Lodz persuades him to recall his life as an actor. The scene flashes back, with the help of scenic designer Jason Sherwood's rotating proscenium arch, to Aldridge's sudden arrival in London. Star actor Edmund Kean has fallen ill while playing Othello, and Aldridge has been engaged to replace him, by company manager Pierre Laporte (Sean Dugan), who turns out to be something of a rebel.
It is not a good fit from the beginning. Kean's son Charles (John Lavelle) is not only jealous but very concerned that an African American will go on in the role. He bad mouths Aldridge every chance he gets. More willing to see what Aldridge is about is leading actress Ellen Tree (Allison Mack). She even goes along with trying out Aldridge's naturalistic style of acting, a far cry from the accepted method, which involved standing like a teapot in front of the audience, declaiming.
Of course, Aldridge gets into trouble, the critics are not only unkind but racist in their comments, and his appearance brings ruin upon the company.
Still, Aldridge did persist, even if he had to play King Lear in white face. His wife Margaret (Ms. Pedlow, again) and he had children who became successful opera singers. Aldridge was on the road a lot, but he worked fairly often, particularly in Eastern Europe. And the theatre changed, not quickly, not easily, and never dealing smoothly with the race and ethnicity of its characters. These issues were slow to resolve, and even today provoke debate.
There are quite a number of double and triple meanings in Ms. Chakrabarti's script, meanings that are echoed nicely in Mr. Sherwood's scenic design, David Israel Reynoso's costume design, and Jason Lyons' lighting design. They are echoed, too, in the cast's performances, not only by Mr. Jones, but particularly by Ms. Mack and by Monique Gaffney, who portrays Connie, a serving woman and the only other person of color in sight. Mr. Dugan gets a truth-telling scene, and Mr. Lavelle dolefully is saddled with the resentments of the scion, who not only lived in the shadow of his famous father but also was nowhere nearly as skillful as an actor.
Still, some of the same problems that faced Aldridge affect director Stafford Arima's production. The script is very British in style, but the actors are very American. And so is the Globe's audience, which may realize that the production is layered (and that even the title's meaning is layered), but may miss how it is layered.
Performances (nightly except Monday, with matinees on Saturday and Sunday) continue through April 30, 2017, at 1313 Old Globe Way in San Diego's Balboa Park. Tickets may be purchased in person, by phone at (619) 23-GLOBE [234-5623], or online at www.theoldglobe.org .
Additional roles are performed by Michael Aurelio and Mark Pinter. Additional creative team members are Jonathan Deans (Sound Design), Jenn Rapp (Movement, Associate Director), David Huber (Vocal Coach), Caparelliotis Casting (Casting), and Jess Slocum (Production Stage Manager).