Theater

Review: Chicago Shakespeare's 'Red Velvet' vividly recreates powerful true story

Athol Fugard once said the theater’s responsibility is to educate as well as to entertain. Multi-award winning playwright Lolita Chakrabarti’s well-crafted and searing drama “Red Velvet” does both. With powerful language and vivid, complex characters, the true story of pioneering Shakespearean black actor Ira Aldridge is revealed beautifully.

The stage is set: It is 1867. Ambitious Polish reporter Halina has infiltrated the celebrated Aldridge’ dressing room in Lodz, Poland. Aldridge is preparing to go on as King Lear. He is 60, in ill health and winding down his famous career. Halina’s one persistent question – “Why haven’t you returned to the London stage?” – sends us back to 1833. Aldridge has been called in to replace the world-reknown actor Edmund Kean, who has collapsed during a production of “Othello” at Covent Garden’s Theatre Royals. Aldridge, despite his success in the provinces and on the continent, of course, has several strikes against him: 1.) He’s black, 2.) He’s American, 3.) He endorses a more natural, interactive, progressive way of acting as opposed to the widely accepted and respected, very disciplined “teapot” acting style (I won’t explain it here, but its demonstration provides much laughter) and, 4.) England’s Parliament is preparing to vote on abolishing slavery throughout the British colonies (Slavery Abolition Act of 1833). Bad timing? You betcha!

Despite the standing ovations from a responsive audience, the indignant critics and papers are shockingly, blatantly racist. Aldridge is ahead of the times, but clearly the powerful critics are mired in another century. “The Theatre Royals has brought out a n----- to portray Othello.” “Aldridge’s lips are too full to pronounce English properly.” You can imagine the rest of the headlines. Perhaps theater owner Pierre LaPorte is correct when he bemoans “theater is a political act” when the board cowardly yields to the power of the print.

The sparse set pieces of Scott M. Davis’ design (placed and removed by choreographed crew and actors) work unobtrusively to enhance the fluid staging. A massive overhead, magnificent red velvet drape drops and surrounds the thrust stage for set changes. Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes are lush, enhancing historical choices that capture the characters’ personalities. And kudos to dialect coach Eva Breneman.

Director Gary Griffin, veteran of 20 productions at Chicago Shakespeare (including my personal favorites “King Charles III,” “Gypsy” and “Follies”), once again demonstrates his incredible talents as he guides his nine-actor ensemble in another riveting production. Dion Johnstone is a charismatic actor; he is fiery, graceful and eloquent in this flawless portrayal of Ira Aldridge. Johnstone has an admirable camaraderie and chemistry with Greg Matthew Anderson, an actor who is the ideal Pierre LaPorte. Anderson is equally as captivating, intense and attractive as Johnstone. They are well matched.

There also is exquisite support from the actors who comprise the Theatre Royal acting company. Michael Hayden is the perfect staid Charles Kean – an actor sympathetic to the times, always in his father’s shadow, offended by LaPorte’s choice of replacement. Juergen Hooper is every inch Henry, the eager and most sincere young abolitionist actor. Hooper also doubles as Casimir, the anxious Lodz stagehand. Annie Purcell doubles as Halina and Margaret Aldridge – great contrasting characters for any actress to play. One is assertively unflinching, the other is calmly supportive. Purcell, like Hooper, does both roles extremely well. Chaon Cross, as real-life actress Ellen Tree (and Aldridge’s Desdemona) shows her character’s changes subtly. Cross is luminous and engaging and displays the right amount of spirit throughout the play’s evolution. Tiffany Renee Johnson is Connie, the young Jamaican theater maid, who delivers tea to all and advice to Aldridge and is quietly regal. (“I don’t like the attention and I do what’s expected.”)

But I appreciated two performers in particular: Roderick Peeples and Bria Sudia, probably because their characters really can be identified and met in the world of theater everywhere. Peeples as the droll Bernard (“We are open to a point. We are English. We know what we like and we like what we know”) and the long-suffering devoted valet to Aldridge (yes, you’ll think of “The Dresser” for a brief moment) will both tickle you and make you sigh in exasperation. Sudia, as the insecure actress Betty Lovell, provides many a comic interlude and is just a delight every time she is onstage.

The bittersweet ending may be perhaps predictable, but it is satisfying. “Red Velvet” is a fascinating drama about an overlooked and forgotten trailblazer with compelling implications for our current times. And like good theater everywhere, beyond its historical nature, an excellent story is told.

• Regina Belt-Daniels is an actress and director who began her career onstage in 1985 at the Woodstock Opera House. Formerly serving on the Raue Center for the Arts Board, she also is a lifetime member of TownSquare Players and a retired District 47 teacher.

“RED VELVET”

WHEN: Through Jan. 21

WHERE: Chicago Shakespeare Courtyard Theater, Navy Pier, 800 E. Grand Ave., Chicago

COST & INFO: Running time is 2 hours, 15 minutes with one intermission. Tickets: $48 to $88. Tickets and information: 312-595-5600 www.chicagoshakes.com.

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