Monday, December 18, 2017

Review of Red Velvet at Chicago Shakespeare Theater

Once upon a time I went to a show and it was called Red Velvet. It was by Lolita Chakrabarti and it was directed by Gary Griffin. It was about Ira Aldridge (Dion Johnstone) who was the first African-American actor to play Othello. He was asked by his friend Pierre LaPorte (Greg Matthew Anderson) to take over for Edmund Kean who had played the role for a very long time, but Edmund's son Charles (Michael Hayden) was not too keen on it. The other performers grow fond of Ira, even though at first they were racist and rude. He develops a close relationship with his leading lady who is playing Desdemona, Ellen Tree (Chaon Cross). They help each other become better actors, but the racist critics make the board of the theater question if they should even have a black Othello. It is about injustice, what makes theater beautiful, and conflict in communities. I think this is a heartbreaking but beautiful show.

The scene where Ira and Pierre have an argument about keeping Ira as Othello was really moving because you could see their friendship falling apart. It was also hard to know whose side to be on because Pierre is trying to help Ira and being completely honest about Ira's performance and why he thinks what is happening is happening, but it seems like he might be siding with people who are doing things for racist reasons. But maybe we should be on Ira's side because people are unfairly judging him because of his race and he is actually a talented actor. But then Pierre points out that Ira might have hurt Ellen during a scene, which would be a problem with him staying in the company. This scene makes you consider that maybe Ira wasn't right about everything. Even though people were doing terrible things to him, he was not just a victim; he made mistakes too. This makes him even more of a human character rather than a magical character who saves the theater for a bunch of white people. There is this strip of light down the middle of the stage in this scene and they are arguing only in the strip of light. You keep thinking the argument is over, and then it would begin again. It was beautiful to watch. I liked how this argument didn't make it so that there was just one person who was right and one person who was being terrible.

I really loved the character of Connie (Tiffany Renee Johnson), the backstage servant from Jamaica. I wish we had gotten to know more about her instead having just one scene where she spoke. It took place when she and Ira were the only people in the room. I thought it was really interesting to see her as a person with reactions and opinions. Until this point she seemed to be listening but not reacting; she was doing her job and that was it. In the scene with Ira, Connie seemed confused as to if she should talk to Ira like he was one of the white people, because she was supposed to serve him, or if she could talk to him like a equal. I could see that uncertainty and I think the actor did a great job with Connie's thought process in that scene; it was clear even though she didn't really say anything about it. I think Connie is useful to have in the show because she is there as an ironic presence to show how insensitive the company is. When she is on stage the company make a lot of racist comments, not really taking her into account or thinking of her as an actual presence. It is terrible because you can see she is uncomfortable, but she can't say anything about it.

I think this show had a really cool way of showing us how Shakespearean acting used to be in the nineteenth century and how broad it was and how it changed. I thought it was really cool to see how much Ellen's performance changed after she had talked to Ira and he showed her how acting can be more of a personal experience and not just for the audience and how you should connect with your scene partner to make the audience connect with you. I really loved how she noticed "Wow! This is a much better way to act than the way I've been doing it." I really liked how she took every suggestion he made as a joke at first, even though it seems like such rational things to suggest now.

People who would like this show are people who like backstage servants, fascinating arguments, and rational acting suggestions. I think people should go see this show. It is beautifully done, and I think this is a true story that needs to be known.

Photos: Liz Lauren

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