Lola Chakrabarti's "Red Velvet," limning the later life of groundbreaking Shakespearean actor Ira Aldridge and currently being presented by Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey (STNJ), is remarkable for many reasons, much of which has to do with how greatly time has changed yet how little people have changed. Bonnie Monte's direction teases nuance from beautifully experienced favorites Lindsay Smiling as Aldridge, Victoria Mack as Ellen Tree, and David Andrew Macdonald as Charles Kean, scion of his father's acting Company. This trio of egos is the love triangle that wasn't, fueled by spectres in Charlie's mind, and acting as a funhouse refraction of “Othello,” the play.
While the later action is set in the mid-1800s, poised on the leading edge of the Industrial Revolution, the immediate pre-Victorian era, where the predominance of the action takes place, is breathtaking in its sense of privilege, divine right, and manifest destiny. Or perhaps I should say breath-robbing ... it is an excellent display of how our sense of "other" is now much more well hidden, though still prevalent in many quarters, a refraction of the current political season.
Change-makers have always had a difficult time and Ira Aldridge was not only the pre-eminent Shakespeare actor of his time, he had the experience many expats have–he was appreciated all the more greatly, because he was outside of his native country. Innovators lead with ideas, and then other leaders follow, as they carry forth the tenets that the innovators bring to light.
There is a poignant scene in the first act where Ira first meets the Company. This tartly-written section is perfect, in that Shakespeare is reduced to melodrama, as the lines are recited and the actors move as if they are automatons. Their mechanical movement uses the stock poses of melodrama to convey what passes for emotion and you have the Villain, aptly played by Charlie; the Ingenue Betty Lowell (Savannah DesOrmeaux); the Young Hero Henry Forester (Garrett Lawson); the Old Pensioner Bernard Warde (John Little); and the Leading Lady Ellen all trying to rock their brains to understand this newcomer and how's he's turned their orderly world topsy turvy. Connie (Shannon Harris) endures treatment and language, especially at the hands of the older men, that had me inching up the back of my chair. It is jarring and uncomfortable to hear race and stereotypes spoken of so hatefully, while Connie, a Jamaican maid and server, is treated like furniture. Some of the dramatis personae have more luck understanding and embracing the changes, major and minor. Others less so, and therein lies the rub.
David Foubert's Pierre Laporte does his best to calm the stormy seas of surging emotions, and he and Ira have a blowup that could cause a seismic shift—these friends in battle is something titanic to behold.
Derring-do in double duty is Sofia Jean Gomez, who is initially the linguistically-gifted Halina Wozniak, who reveres Ira for all that he is as a national treasure to her and her parents, and she also plays the benighted Margaret Aldridge, during the flashback sequence. Margaret's mien seems to hint at knowledge of Ira's past infidelities and her gimlet eye is on Ms. Tree even as she waits for Ira with a Buddhist's patience and forbearance: serene, yet with wheels turning in the windmills of her mind.
Smiling is brilliant and there is a scintillation of sparks between his Ira and Macdonald's Charlie. Given enough time and a good drunken fight, they might end up as friends—in another lifetime. There is a frisson of something between Ira and Ellen as well, though what it is even Margaret cannot say. However, spending time alone in company with the opposite gender was not something a lady pursued back then ... yet Ellen does. How the plot doth thicken.
Buy your tickets now for this amazing play, running only through September 25, at www.shakespearenj.org