ST. PETERSBURG — A backstage scene in Red Velvet, Freefall Theatre's production of a recent play that is turning heads, spells out the pre-Victorian social climate as well as any.
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"This concept of equality and freedom, it's a fad," an older actor in the cast of Othello declares, "impossible to achieve because there'll always be those of us who must lead and those who follow." The line is one of many attempting to justify slavery, which Parliament was on the verge of dissolving in 1833.
Meanwhile, one of history's least recognized game-changers was about to join the cast. Red Velvet, by British actor and playwright Lolita Chakrabarti, has already made a useful contribution by dramatizing the work of Ira Aldridge, an African-American actor born in New York in 1807. As a young man, Aldridge left the United States for Europe, where he became one of the 19th century's most celebrated actors. The play, often with a light touch, highlights the many ways in which an embedded racism continues to operate, defining and often fragmenting relationships.
Freefall's production, directed by Christopher Rutherford, takes a serious shot at unraveling those relationships over a few days in 1833, when Aldridge stepped in to play Othello in Covent Garden. This is a solid piece work, held together by strong performances throughout the ensemble, all the way to costumes by Amy Cianci and Eric Davis' spare but effective set design, dominated in the theater scenes by a painting of Aldridge as an exotic warrior prince.
Jose Rufino as Aldridge appeared undaunted by the pressure of playing a legendary actor, whose more interpretive American style influenced British theater at least as much as his ethnicity. Because of the flashback structure, in which the much older actor is recounting events of his calamitous two-day run in Covent Garden, Rufino is actually playing two characters, the young actor and a more imperious, quick-tempered and in some ways embittered version of himself. By the second scene, the script allows him to show the warmth and humor also essential to his character, and Rufino takes full advantage.
His relationships form the structure of the play, which works because those roles are ably cast and delivered with a brisk pace. In assuming the role, Aldridge displaces Charles Kean, son and heir apparent of the white actor who played Othello before health problems. Matt Lunsford, who plays Kean, conveys the thin-lipped jealousy inherent in losing the part to someone he considers inferior. Douglas Hall fits the bill as the ambitious but pragmatic Pierre LaPorte, Aldridge's longtime agent whose friendship with the actor is tested by LaPorte's role as theater manager.
The script seems to alternate between the engaging and didactic, at times conveying information in a flat, one-dimensional way. (A paragraph in the opening scene in which Aldridge recites his resume is particularly transparent.) But character does shine through, particularly in the chemistry between Aldridge and Ellen Tree, who plays Desdemona opposite him in Othello. Ellen is the actor most deeply affected by Aldridge, and Britta Ollmann delivers the most compelling performance in the role.
Not every big moment works. What is supposed to be a stunned silence when the cast meets Aldridge, and they confront his race, feels more like dead air. A protesting mob outside, whose members are chanting, "Rule, Britannia!," just sounds like a crowd loudly mumbling something or other.
But overall, the depth and versatility of this cast (Megan Therese Rippey is particularly impressive as a young reporter in the opening and closing scenes, a flighty Othello cast member and Aldridge's wife). The most casual actions and phrases reveal racial beliefs, from asking a black maid to fetch a cup of tea from a table 10 feet away to the makeup of civilized society.
That kind of content, which also lifts up a story and a life neglected far too long, makes Red Velvet an unforgettable experience.
Contact Andrew Meacham at email@example.com or (727) 892-2248. Follow @torch437.
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