'Red Velvet' at Lantern Theater: Race, social rage, and Shakespeare

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The cast of “Red Velvet” at the Lantern Theater Company.

Lantern Theater Company launches Philadelphia’s professional season with Red Velvet, Lolita Chakrabarti’s provocative and entertaining drama about race and theater. Peter DeLaurier directs.

In the current climate in the theater world, directors and actors are intensely concerned with diversity casting and, as a director recently called it, “color-consciousness,” so there is a particular and lunatic absurdity in objecting to a black actor playing Othello. But when Ira Aldridge, an African American actor played the role at Covent Garden in London in 1833, the objections were so vociferous that he was fired after two days. True story.

Like most plays about theater, Red Velvet is part valentine, part expose. We meet the company backstage when Edmund Kean, “the greatest actor of his generation,” collapses during a performance of Othello (in blackface, of course). A replacement must be found quickly. The French manager (Damon Bonetti) is old friends with Aldridge and hires him, knowing that it will be a controversial choice.

The controversy is predominantly about race; politically, in the real world offstage and outside, there is a major dispute over the abolition of slavery (which Chakrabarti actually spends very little time on).  That said, keep your eye on the Jamaican servant (Ebony Pullum), who silently reacts to everything she hears. The layers pile up as we discover Aldridge has a white wife (Liz Filios, who despite her facility with accents is often inaudible) just as Othello does. The relationship between Aldridge and his Desdemona, played by the famous actress Ellen Tree (Lauren Sowa, in a lovely and subtle performance) is further complicated by the controversy about acting styles: the exaggerated classical English style, and the more naturalistic, emotional method of the American stage.

Sure enough, the critics are outraged by the production, as is much of the cast: Edmund Kean’s son Charles (Adam Hammet, whose Iago is eyebrow-dependent) and the old guard, represented by David Bardeen (always a pleasure) are scornful and patronizing, while the younger guard, represented by David Pica, is willing if not eager to try some new acting techniques.

Finally, the success of this fine production rests on the elegant shoulders of Forrest McClendon, whose Aldridge is volatile and passionate, and whose performance is a virtuosic demonstration of acting styles and accents. As a young man he shakes out his arms, a fighter ready to tackle the Moor, while as a muddled old man, we see him apply whiteface to play the ancient Lear.

Red Velvet ends with Lear’s heartbreaking lines, “ they are not men o’ their words: they told me I was everything; ’tis a lie…” The lie is not only the betrayals – Lear’s, Othello’s, and Aldridge’s – but also the very heart and essence of theater, where everything is not what it seems.

Lantern’s production is, of course, framed by an old-fashioned red velvet proscenium curtain, and the costumes (designed by Janus Stefanowicz) are both beautiful and character-revealing, as costumes should be.

 

Red Velvet. Through Oct. 8 at the Lantern Theater Company, St. Stephen’s Theatre, 10th & Ludlow Sts. Tickets: $26-$43. 215-829-0395, lanterntheater.org.

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