I’m a big fan of Shakespeare-adjacent theater, as a category. That can either mean plays by Shakespeare’s contemporaries (Dr. Faustus), or plays about Shakespeare’s life (Shakespeare’s Sister), or plays in response to Shakespeare’s plays (Rosencrantz and Guildenstern are Dead) or, as in the case of Red Velvet, plays about people performing the works of Shakespeare or his contemporaries. These plays can be hit-or-miss, quality-wise. After all, when playwrights set themselves up for comparison to Shakespeare, the opportunities for disappointment are substantial.

Red Velvet, by Lolita Chakrabarti, luckily, does not disappoint. Although the end is a little weak (and by “the end,” I do literally mean the last ten lines), the effect overall is powerful and brilliant.

It falls into that last category, telling the story of 19th-century actor Ira Aldridge, the first black actor to play Othello on the professional stage in England. He was brought in as an emergency substitute when Edmund Kean became unable to continue the role. His performance was reportedly very powerful, but the theater shut the whole experiment down quickly.

Ira Aldridge as Othello.

The play is powerful, fascinating, and deeply uncomfortable. Director James Ricks told me he sees it as much as a love letter to the theater as a play about race, and I agree. Ira isn’t just an actor who looks very different from the others, his approach to theater is also extremely different. What he brings feels more modern, as the company is doing an older and more formal style of acting. Some of the actors find this exciting and entrancing; others are just appalled.

Some moments, in fact, felt uncomfortable to me as a theater person, but I’m sure felt uncomfortable to the characters because of race. For example, in 21st-century theaters, generally, actors do not ever direct other actors. In the 19th century, the leading actor normally also did a lot of directing. Most companies didn’t have what we would recognize as a director. So when Ira comes into Covent Garden and begins directing the other actors, my gut recoiled because one does not do that in the theater, and the characters in the play recoiled because, while a lead actor quite definitely would take on that role, a black person did not do that to a white person. A fascinating resonance/juxtaposition.

Another moment that was hard for characters, actors, and audience was when the actors are reading the reviews in the newspaper. I’m fairly sure the playwright used words from the actual reviews. They were awful. In one of them, the reviewer insisted on referring to Ira as somebody’s servant, rather than using his name. The most astonishing and appalling line–even worse than the one that used the n-word–was a review that began a sentence: “Although his African features were humanized…” How…dehumanizing.

The play has a framing story that takes place thirty years later, when Ira Aldridge is preparing to play King Lear in Poland. I appreciate this because it shows that the problems he faced as a result of his performance at Covent Garden didn’t destroy his career. He kept acting, and achieved a degree of fame. The play closes with him putting on white face to play Lear. The absurdity and the reversal of this act was stunning and eery.

The production was excellent. I hadn’t seen anything at Quill before, but I have every intention of going back. The design was beautiful, particularly the costumes. They told the story, instantly laying out relationships and status, and fit the time and place perfectly. The set had a lovely flexibility, serving both as greenroom and stage, seamlessly. And we all know how I love a platea stage.

The acting was strong across the board, although I found it stronger in the core play than in the framing story. Their clarity of intention and line let me fall into the story. Some of the relationships were so strong and credible, I wanted to know more about what was underpinning them. One of my favorite things about theater is theater people, and when actors have an opportunity to show that backstage culture, the result can be deeply satisfying. The script has so many moments of the kinds of in-jokes and back-catalog references that are typical in companies of actors that have worked together over a long time, and the actors layered on top of this with the deep communication that actors often have with each other–a look, or refusal of one, that speaks volumes. An ease with each other’s bodies. Subtle alignment along invisible lines of affinity.

The director had to step in for an actor who had a family emergency, and while there were a handful of moments when that bubbled to the surface, he overall did a fantastic job, living the classic “director’s nightmare.” When he put his hand on Ira’s shoulder and said, “You are very inch the Moor,” I had shivers. He had great presence in that moment, regardless of his self-deprecating comments afterward.

I hope to see these actors do actual Shakespeare this summer, rather than a few lines of Othello in the service of this other story. But my goodness, what a fascinating story this was.

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