Wednesday January 17th 2018

“Red Velvet”

Back in 2016, The Raven Theatre was host to the premiere of Lolita Chakrabarti’s “Red Velvet. This is a striking story of an African-American actor taking over the role of Othello, a role that was always played by White performers. I was unable to attend the performance, but did send a young writer, Jacob Davis, to cover the production in my stead. He agreed with the other reviewers that indeed this was a Highly Recommended show! Needless to say, this latest production , now on the stage at Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier, under to direction of Gary Griffin is even more stunning that the earlier production. One of the things that Griffin has added ( besides a great budget, of course) is that he has redone the theater as an in-the-round stage area with a curtain above that covers the stage area in its entirety between scenes.

The story is about an actor, Ira Aldridge ( an amazing and powerful interpretation by Dion Johnstone , who has worked at the Stratford Festival, thus knows his Shakespeare), who due to the collapse onstage of Edmund Kean, who was playing Othello, is called to the fold as his replacement. The time is 1833 and the locale Theatre Royal in Covent Gardens. Mind you, an African-American has never performed this role in London’s West End. Aldridge is not just an African-American, but the fact that he is AMERICAN sent shock waves through the streets. This was during a period that  Parliament was debating the abolition of slavery, so you can see how the populace might take this.

Aldridge did become a leader in doing Shakespeare, playing some of the most demanding of the roles in his plays; Shylock, Macbeth and of course, Lear. What was amazing about Aldridge is the fact that while he was perfect for the role, he only performed the role for two performances before being dismissed from the company. I would have to say that the people were not ready for a Black actor to play a Black role. Critics were unkind to him, not due to any flaws in his performance but purely because  of his skin color. He became a major force in doing Shakespeare, but never could play London again.

The deeper part of the story is what is happening in the world today. Inclusion is often looked at as important in today’s theater productions. Ensembles are made up of people from all backgrounds and races. While this is wonderful and allows directors true freedom of selecting their talent, there are always audience members who feel that this inclusion goes against their grain. Recently, a suburban theater did a piece that would have been in the 1920’s in Chicago. The attorney ( one of the leading roles) for the fallen woman was African-American- she was White. This would not be realistic and could make some audience members question even more of the show. Our world has made many strides to correct some of the obstacles that were in place and perhaps in doing so, in some cases, goes to the extreme!

“Red Velvet” exposes the theater audiences, and perhaps even the talent in the play , to changes that need to happen in time to come. In the show, the other company members express their fears of change and each person’s personal struggle with race and entitlement. Aldridge was also a more progressive actor who takes the role to new heights and studiously works with the other actors ( or attempts to) in order to ensure that every audience member feels the heart and soul of the story and the character. His relationships with  actress Ellen Tree ( another powerful character played by Chaon Cross), wife Margaret ( deftly handled by Annie Purcell who also takes on reporter Halina) and Connie (sweetly portrayed by Tiffany Renee Johnson). The other female actress in this production is Chicago favorite Bri Sudia.

The balance of the ensemble are men who all feel disdain for this man stepping on to “their” stage. Pierre LaPorte ( sharply played by Greg Matthew Anderson) who hires Aldridge to bring harmony to the production, Charles Kean ( played to perfection by Michael Hayden) son of the fallen actor, Edmund Kean ,Roderick Peeples as Terrance/Bernard Ward and Jurgen Hooper as Casmir/Henry Forester. This is a small cast for this theater, but what they lack in numbers, they make up for with talent. I believe that this piece outshines what was here before, and while that was highly recommended, I think this one is a MUST SEE, in particular for theater-lovers and of course, those who adore Shakespeare!

As always ,the technical side of the production is amazing. Mara Blumenfeld’s costumes are beautiful, the wigs and make-up (Richard Jarvie) are “to-die-for, Christine Binder’s lighting and Christopher Kriz’ sound are the icing on the cake along with Jenny Giering’s original music and Scott M. Davis’ set, which although sparse, is perfect. We all expect top-notch at Chicago Shakespeare Theater and once again, they have delivered!

“Red Velvet” will continue through January 21st at Chicago Shakespeare Theater at Navy Pier with performances as follows:

Sat, Dec 9: 3:00pm & 8:00pm
Sun, Dec 10: 2:00pm & 6:30pm
Tue, Dec 12: 7:30pm
Wed, Dec 13: 1:00pm & 7:30pm
Thu, Dec 14: 7:30pm
Fri, Dec 15: 7:30pm
Sat, Dec 16: 3:00pm & 8:00pm
Sun, Dec 17: 2:00pm
Tue, Dec 19: 7:30pm
Wed, Dec 20: 1:00pm & 7:30pm
Thu, Dec 21: 1:00pm & 7:30pm
Fri, Dec 22: 7:30pm
Sat, Dec 23: 3:00pm & 8:00pm
Wed, Dec 27: 1:00pm & 7:30pm
Thu, Dec 28: 7:30pm
Fri, Dec 29: 7:30pm
Sat, Dec 30: 3:00pm & 8:00pm
Sun, Dec 31: 2:00pm & 8:00pm
Tue, Jan 2: 7:30pm
Wed, Jan 3: 1:00pm & 7:30pm
Thu, Jan 4: 7:30pm
Fri, Jan 5: 7:30pm
Sat, Jan 6: 3:00pm & 8:00pm
Sun, Jan 7: 2:00pm & 6:30pm
Tue, Jan 9: 7:30pm
Wed, Jan 10: 1:00pm & 7:30pm
Thu, Jan 11: 7:30pm
Fri, Jan 12: 7:30pm
Sat, Jan 13: 3:00pm & 8:00pm
Sun, Jan 14: 2:00pm
Wed, Jan 17: 7:30pm
Fri, Jan 19: 7:30pm
Sat, Jan 20: 3:00pm & 8:00pm
Sun, Jan 21: 2:00pm

 

Show Type: Drama

Box Office: 312-595-5600

www.chicagoshakes.com/plays_and_events/velvet

 

 

Discounted parking is available-bring your ticket to the theater for validation.

To see what others are saying, visit www.theatreinchicago.com, go to Review Round-Up and click at “Red Velvet”

 

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