Theater: Smooth start

Gripping ‘Red Velvet’ debuts

By Charles Brousse

One of the characters in Lolita Chakrabarti’s gripping biodrama Red Velvet says, as she tries to explain what makes the theatrical world turn, “We know what we like, and we like what we know.” The play has begun a debut Bay Area run, ending June 25 at the San Francisco Playhouse, just up Post Street from Union Square.

For many people, change is disturbing. It means giving up something known, even if imperfect, for something whose impact is yet to be determined. And yet, not to act if conditions warrant is also risky. That’s Hamlet’s dilemma in a nutshell. Those who look at choices from a historical perspective, however, enjoy the luxury of being able to measure results, which Chakrabarti has done in her treatment of what happened April 10-11,1833 at London’s Theatre Royal, Covent Garden.

The circumstances are these: In an effort to improve lackluster box office receipts at Covent Garden, then one of the city’s two (with Drury Lane) major theaters, manager Pierre LaPorte engaged one of England’s most popular actors, Edmund Kean, to assume the title role in Shakespeare’s Othello. When Kean collapsed while performing, the desperate LaPorte recruited Ira Aldrich, who had portrayed the Moor in numerous well-received productions around the country, to replace him. This provoked a firestorm of protest among the chauvinistic defenders of traditional English culture. Without investigating further, they saw him as a boorish American interloper who couldn’t be expected to understand or interpret the nuances of Shakespearean blank verse. But what really damned him was the fact that he was a black man when all previous Othellos had been whites whose faces were rubbed with burnt cork.

While all this clamor unnerved company members, the run continued as scheduled and (according to contemporary observers) Aldrich was enthusiastically embraced by the audience. Instead of diminishing, however, the negative pressure became even louder, including complaints about how his naturalistic acting during Desdemona’s murder clashed with the customary, more restrained “tea party” style. Critics invoked visions of African savages roaming London’s stages.

Backed into a corner and fearful of losing the group’s management contract, a reluctant LaPorte felt compelled to close the show down after his second performance. Aldrich left London and went on to fame and some fortune touring the continent (especially Eastern Europe) and Russia.  He died in Poland in 1867. While he never returned to London, the theatrical color barrier had been permanently breached and the prevailing exaggerated artifice employed by actors began to erode—transitions that almost everyone agrees have had positive effects on theater as an art form.

In one way or another, all of this is included in Chakrabarti’s wide-ranging script. It’s a lot of material to digest—perhaps too much. Red Velvet is the British author’s first produced stage play, and it suffers from the problems of content overload that such ventures often have. But it also offers a rich environment for directors, designers and actors to put their talents on view.

The Playhouse doesn’t disappoint. Carl Lumbly is breathtakingly powerful as Othello in the “handkerchief scene” with Susi Damilano’s Desdemona that concludes Act 1. Strong as that is, his versatility is visible in quiet moments that convey the insecurities that lie beneath Aldrich’s bravado. Damilano supplies strong support in the scene just mentioned and in her assertive role as the Covent Garden company’s leading actress, Ellen Tree. Putting aside his difficulties with a French accent, Patrick Russell offers a convincing portrayal of LaPorte, the manager faced with difficult choices. Elena Wright is splendid in a number of roles, and the remainder of the cast keeps the somewhat overlong play moving under Margo Hall’s crisp direction.

Notable also are Gary English’s set in the grand early 19th century Baroque style and period-appropriate costumes by Abra Berman. In sum, Red Velvet is a promising beginning for Chakrabarti as a playwright and another achievement for San Francisco’s most consistently provocative mid-size theater.

NOW PLAYING: Red Velvet runs through June 25 at the San Francisco Playhouse, 450 Post Street, San Francisco; 414/677-9596; sfplayhouse.org.

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