Review: “Red Velvet” (Raven Theatre)

Brandon Greenhouse and Sophia Menendian/Photo: Dean La Prairie.
Brandon Greenhouse and Sophia Menendian/Photo: Dean La Prairie.

Show: “Red Velvet”

Company: Raven Theatre

Venue:  Raven Theatre (6157 N Clark St)

Die Roll: 14

Ira Aldridge was the first man of color to perform Othello on the London stage in 1833. He trod the Covent Garden boards at a compelling moment. As riots surrounding the abolition of slavery raged outside the theatre’s front doors, questions about how best to act classical texts for contemporary audiences stymied traditional actors in the rehearsal room. The Aldridge showcased in Raven Theatre’s “Red Velvet” could be seen as the fiery spark burning down outdated racial and artistic sensibilities, only to usher in the new growth of an open-minded and sensitive performance style. If only the play were actually about Ira Aldridge.

This Midwestern premiere, penned by British playwright Lolita Chakrabarkti, gamely attempts to capture the entirety of the English theatre scene circa the mid-1800’s — introducing issues of race and class, the integration of actresses into Shakespeare’s traditionally gender-bent scripts, and the fevered competition between famously presentational performers like Edmund Kean and the more emotionally truthful Aldridge. That is a lot of subject matter to chew on, and the men and women onstage are sacrificed in the name of maintaining and explaining historical context.

Matthew Klingler, Tuckie White, and Brandon Greenhouse/Photo: Dean La Prairie.
Tim Martin, Tuckie White, and Brandon Greenhouse/Photo: Dean La Prairie.

When Ira Aldridge (Brandon Greenhouse) arrives for rehearsal at Covent Garden, the white actors in his band of players react with shock. They assumed Aldridge was white, and his taking up the role of Othello represents a vile rejection of tradition for his Iago, Charles Kean (Tyler Rich). Aldridge tries to persuade Kean that he, of all actors, can best embody the doomed war hero, but Kean responds that great theatre is about the magic of transformation and escapism, not about playing what one begrudgingly greets in the real world. Ellen Tree (Tuckie White), Kean’s fiancée and Aldridge’s Desdemona, is willing to work with Aldridge in his more emotional style, even if it means allowing for slips in pronunciation, as well as acknowledging that an African American man must lay his hands on the dainty throat of a white woman before an outraged audience. The two artists develop a bond that could grow to romance, if the play had space for the excesses of the human soul. Alas, stage time that could explore the “make or break” passions surrounding the production is sadly spent delivering lessons on British economics and declaiming over and over again that Aldridge is a game-changer, without clearly demonstrating what made his acting style so magical, or even what he desires to make of his own career.

It is too bad so few scenes are spent rehearsing the tragedy, because the personal story of creation and social justice stashed away in the heart of “Red Velvet” resonates with issues currently facing the Chicago theatre scene. The Porchlight Theater has been roundly criticized for casting a white man as the Latino narrator of the recently opened “In the Heights.” Organizations like the Chicago Inclusion Project have begun working with theatre companies to diversify casting for texts where minority or disabled actors might be ignored. On a national scale, film companies are being asked to reflect the multicultural reality in which we live via campaigns like #OscarsSoWhite. The most powerful scenes in “Red Velvet” revolve around the very same concerns and demands.

Matthew Klingler and Brandon Greenhouse/Photo: Dean La Prairie.
Matthew Klingler and Brandon Greenhouse/Photo: Dean La Prairie.

The actors recognize what is at stake. Greenhouse is an engaging actor, and he does an admirable job distinguishing between his own acting choices and the bombastic style of Aldridge’s day. He packs his lines with conviction and energy, and though he is currently a bit too loud for Raven’s small space, creating echoes that obscure meaning, he leads the play with conviction. White does similarly well by Aldridge’s leading lady, revealing a devilish streak underneath her sense of propriety. Tim Martin is a lot of fun as the abolitionist Henry Forester, who fan-boys over Greenhouse the moment they meet. Meanwhile, Rich and Scott Olson do solid work as the ugly members of the cast who don’t want to act beside a man of color.

Still, the script lacks emotional follow-through, sweeping conflicts under the rug until the final ten minutes of the show, where an undercooked parallel between the false faces in “Othello” and the false faces in the theatre company appears. Director Michael Menendian does what he can to build complex relationships between Greenhouse and the other actors, but the shouting matches that result betray how thin the script is when it comes to flesh and blood choices. Why does theater manager Pierre LaPorte (Matthew Klingler) not defend his leading man, when London newspapers print racist reviews? What becomes of Aldridge’s wife Margaret (Sophia Menendian), once he is forced to tour on the road again? What is the personal cost of such racism to Aldridge? The playwright cares so much about scope that she loses her sense of scale, and this history play is turned into a dead, rather than a living, thing.

TEN WORD SUMMARY: Historical drama leans heavily on history and forgets the drama.

DICE RATING: d6- “Has Some Merit”