Red Velvet

By Philip Pearce

IF YOU LOVE THEATER, a new play called Red Velvet offered by Jewel Theatre Company in Santa Cruz is your cup of British tea. You’ll enjoy it even if you just like an occasional evening at an  entertaining show and don’t much care about the mechanics of how that happens. But Red Velvet will mean heaps more if, like me, you love the theatrical process almost as much as the finished theatrical product, would like watching a rehearsal as much as an opening night. Red Velvet is a brilliant, stylized picture of the creation and failure of a theatrical performance—and  of a major theatrical talent.         

Aldo Billingslea plays American-born Ira Aldridge, who spent most of his middle and mature years touring Britain and Europe in productions of works by Shakespeare and a lot of lesser dramatists in the mid-19th century. The play introduces him as a blustering egocentric old stage veteran staggering around a theatrical dressing room in the town of Lodz Poland. He condescends to grant an interview to an ambitious Polish trainee journalist (Audrey Rumsby), but explodes in inexplicable rage and clams up when she asks him about an 1833 performance of Othello at London’s Covent Garden.

Lolita Chakrabarti’s script flashes back to that historic moment when Pierre Laporte, manager of the Theatre Royal Covent Garden, deals with the sudden on-stage collapse of England’s greatest Shakespeare actor-manager, Edmund Kean, during a performance of Othello. Ably played by Jeffrey (Geoff) Fiorita, Laporte becomes the calm center of a backstage theatrical storm as he reassures Kean’s company of stranded players that he’s replacing their ailing boss with an American who knows the role and is ready to step in forthwith for the remainder of the run. The company’s relief turns into a fire-storm when the replacement turns out to be not just American but African American. 

Billingslea is a brilliant, passionate and focused Aldridge, who wastes no time in turning on a load of confident transatlantic charm and theatrical know-how. His new leading lady, Ellen Tree (the radiant Jennifer Le Blanc), is quickly won over. But she is inconveniently engaged to Kean’s son Charles, who isn’t. Acted with high-powered pompous indignation by Jeremy Kahn, Charles has assumed that his father’s collapse means that his son and heir will upgrade from Iago to the Moor—a starring role Charles is damned if he’s going to surrender to any self-assured black New Yorker. 

Historically justified or not, Aldridge is written by Chakrabarti and acted by Billingslea as a proto-method actor, who startles his new colleagues with the revolutionary idea that you act a stage role by trying to recreate similar feelings and situations from your own past experience, not by adopting stereotyped postures and facial expressions that “project” character and situation to an audience.

It’s all set against a background of nearby street riots protesting Britain’s recent abolition of  slavery, a controversy with obvious implications for Ira Aldrich‘s arrival on the scene. Jesse Caldwell, excellent as the hide-bound stage veteran Bernard Wade, can’t believe any black actor can portray the Moor of Venice. He locks horns with exuberant young Henry Forrester (the appealingly energetic Teddy Spencer) who sees Aldridge as the poster boy of a liberated  and exciting new age of British racial equality. As a bubble-headed and squawky supporting actress named Betty Lovell, Shannon Warrick  just continues to bubble and squeak hilariously under all the new circumstances. 

Aldridge’s tactics as he defies racial stereotypes and invades the hide-bound portals of Covent Garden are the high point of a marvelous Act 1. Bob Rumsby directs in a broad, high comedy style that accepts rather than downplays the fact that the Theatre Royal regulars are, by and large, not so much rounded portraits as ludicrous examples of the posturing and grimaces of  much mid-nineteenth century British acting.      

It’s tougher going dramatically in Act 2. Aldridge’s debut performance wins approval, unconditional from his English wife Margaret (a warm and sympathetic Cristina Anselmo), grudging to delighted from his fellow actors, immediate and excited from his debut audience.  But the morning after press notices range from the snootily patronizing to the viciously racist and the critics, it seems, have the final say. Laporte changes abruptly from Aldridge’s strongest ally to his main antagonist and the author of his theatrical decline. 

Back to the future in the Polish dressing room, the aging, boozy and self-absorbed Aldridge, widely recognized but more as a racial curiosity than a respected artist, smears his face with a chalky make-up that turns him into a white ghost for an appearance as King Lear.

It’s a searing image of a fumbling capitulation to stereotyped white acting that contrasts powerfully with the hope and bounce of Aldridge‘s arrival at the Theatre Royal. What falters dramatically is the climax earlier in Act 2, where Aldridge pleads passionately with Laporte against being sacked from the Othello assignment simply on the basis of some snide and racially biased newspaper reviews. and a reputation for being too passionate.       

Billingslea and Fiorito do it full justice to this central confrontation, but Chakrabati frames it in appeals by Aldridge to events of his American past. He points back to his boyhood excitement at the red velvet glamour of a first visit to the segregated upper balcony of Manhattan’s Park Theater. He cites the emotional power of his early performances as a member of New York’s first resident African American theater company. These are cogent and important historic events, but compared with the immediacy of Aldridge’s live action arrival at the Theatre Royal and the power of the final image of his chalk-white face in a dressing room mirror, this important turning is well-acted talk about past events that are historically accurate but not likely to be familiar or even essential to a well-informed audience.   

As always, Jewel comes up with a set that not only provides the cast with a space to act in but helps to tell the story. Ken Dorsey’s design makes exciting use of BAUER design facilities to frame the stage, before the play starts and during intermission, with a collage of flyers, posters, newspaper articles and reviews touting Aldlridge’s stage appearances, notably under the sobriquet “The African Roscius,” recalling the pre-Christian Roman actor. 

 Red Velvet is a compelling piece of theater about theater that continues at the Colligan in the River Street Tannery Arts Center through February 17th. 

Photo by Steve DiBartolomeo