Supporting the Arts in Western Massachusetts and Beyond

August 18, 2015

Red Velvet

Shakespeare & Company, Lenox, MA
through September 13, 2015
by Beverly Dane

Photo by Kevin Sprague
"Red Velvet" is the compelling story of Ira Aldridge, an African-American actor who migrated from the United States to England, where he married and ultimately became the first Black actor to play Othello in 1826. But despite a successful career throughout Europe and Eastern Europe, racism and intolerance plagued his career. The inherent drama in this story is great material for a play, and John Douglas Thompson, an actor of enormous talent, physicality and vocal power, is a formidable Aldridge.

Unfortunately, the concept and the lead actor are not enough to carry Shakespeare & Company’s production of "Red Velvet," penned by Lolita Chakrabarti and directed by Daniela Varon. The script is wordy and is occasionally peppered with theatre "in" jokes that may be amusing to those who understand them, but they take attention away from the drama that unfolds and seem inappropriate to a show with an important theme set in the 1800s. Even with these problems, there are moments of greatness, such as when set designer John McDermott’s stage is magically transformed into a nineteenth century venue complete with footlights and crashing backdrop. The raw sensory shift gives Thompson what he needs to breathe life into Aldridge’s performance and dazzles the audience.

This is "Red Velvet’s" first American production, and there are still some problems to be worked out.  On opening night, the show’s pacing was slow and actors often stepped on each others' lines. Some of the accents reflecting a range of European nations were clearly forced. But, like the example above, there are some outstanding scenes that give hope that the show may grow and develop throughout the run, and the message of the play is indeed powerful.