OWI’s ‘Red Velvet’: A powerful bookend of Othellos

Ben Church, Thomas Grenon, Desiré Graham and Seth HIll in “Red Velvet.” Photo Credit, O.W.I. (Bureau of Theatre)

BOSTON – June is bustin’ out all over. For some of Boston’s smaller theater companies, that isn’t good news.

With June has come first sighting of decent weather and everyone rushing outside , events such as Pride Week, and a theater season where two of Boston’s heavyweight theaters have extended into the summer season with smash-hit productions.

With all of this happening, even excellent work can struggle to get the needed eyeballs.

Hopefully, that won’t be the case for the OWI (Bureau of Theatre) production of “Red Velvet” at the Boston Center for the Arts through June 16.

OWI Artistic Director Pete Riesenberg intended this as an artistic bookend to Keith Hamilton Cobb’s award-winning “American Moor” last season. While that piece was about an actor who had problems trying to be seen as anything but Othello, “Red Velvet” is about a black actor trying to claim one of Shakespeare’s few roles for a person of color for himself, and the resulting backlash.

Ira Aldridge (Seth Hill, newly-minted BU grad) became the first black actor to perform a principal role in a Shakespearean tragedy on the legitimate stage in London in his short stint as the title character in “Othello” in 1833. Though written as a black Moor, it was virtually always played by a white actor at the time. (personal note: The first Othello I ever saw was Sir Laurence Olivier in the 1965 film version, a fine but obviously white actor.)

Aldridge went on to become a European theatrical icon, touring extensively all over the continent until his death in 1867. There was a period in Russia in which he was the highest-paid actor in the world, earning the equivalent of $2.5 million for 22 performances.

But what he went through to get to the London stage and what he encountered when he made the breakthrough is at the crux of “Red Velvet.” It’s also the story of a American who after finding fame abroad never returned to his home country, fearing he could not, as a black man, have a career in his homeland.

Seth Hill as Ira Aldridge and Siobhan Carroll as Margaret Aldridge – Photo Credit, O.W.I. (Bureau of Theatre)

It begins with Aldridge in a dressing room in a theater in Lodz, Poland, in 1867, shortly before his death in that country where he was beloved and is buried. He is ill and a insistent journalist named Halina (Siobhan Carroll, one of three fine supporting roles) is intent on interviewing him.

After he initially brushes aside her questions, she zeroes in about why he never returned to London to perform after that 1833 engagement.

Cut to a meeting room at the Royal Covent Garden Theatre in 1833. The theater is in turmoil after Sir Edmund Kean, perhaps the greatest actor of his generation, collapsed on stage during a performance of “Othello.” All eyes are on theater director Pierre LaPorte (Matt Arnold). What will he do?

Rumors abound that the actor who may fill in for Kean will be an African-American familiar with the role, unheaed of on the London stage at the time.

Matt Arnold plays LaPorte, Royal Covent Garden Theatre director who gave Aldridge his chance.

Spencer Parli Tew steals several scenes as Charles Kean, the imperious son of the acclaimed Edmund Kean, invested not only in his father’s health but his legacy, along with the the possibility that he might be engaged to play the role in his father’s absence, only to find that LaPorte has chosen Aldridge, a long-time friend.

Charlotte Kinder is the acclaimed Ellen Tree, another iconic talent, gracious and welcoming to Ira, and her support sends tongues to wagging when those with am agenda accuse Aldridge of “pawing” her.

Ben Church is a stagehand ion the Polish theater and and Henry Forester, a member of the company in the Royal Covent Theatre who argues for change and sees Aldridge as a good thing.

As the manager of the Polish theater and Bernard Wardle, a Royal Covent Garden regular, Thomas Grenon is yet another who argues passionately for the status quo; members of the company band together as a Greek chorus lobbing grenades at the embattled Pierre : “We like what we know. We know what we like.”

His fellow actors end up being just as hidebound as the critics and moreso than the audience.

The critics assassinated Ira, invoking the “N-word” at one point and speculating that blacks in general – and especially American blacks – were incapable of even speaking English well enough to succeed on the London stage.

One referred to Aldridge as “Mr. Wallach’s black servant” for the time the actor served Wallach as a dresser.

There was the faint praise of “Rather good .. for a Yankee.”

The scene where the servant Connie ( Desire Graham ) does her best to keep Ira away from the reviews is like watching a slow-motion car crash that can’t be prevented.

Ira hangs his head as he scans the printed vitriol. Later, he gives us a glimpse of the anger he struggled to contain at his treatment in the harrowing scene when Pierre tells Ira not only has he been sacked, but the theater would be going dark for the first time in its history.

Riesenberg and Director Bryn Boice have assembled a crackerjack team of actors and designers to give full voice to Lolita Chakrabarti’s ;piece.

James J. Fenton, recently IRNE-nominated for his work on Merrimack Rep’s “Silent Sky” has festooned the theaters in the play with playbills from the 1833 engagement, gas lights and the red velvet in question. Alexander Fetchko’s evocative lighting with its dimly-lit areas and shadows complements Becca Jewett’s costumes, which are period perfect without suffocating the actors.

It’s not a given that accents will hold together very well with the  Scottish accent being a devilish one to both reproduce and hold together over a period of time, but the company – especially Carroll as Ira’s Scottish wife, Margaret – manages quite well. The scene where Ira frets at her having to watch his performance from backstage instead of a seat is yet another indignation heaped upon him.

Director Boice showed her skills with an ensemble piece in her all-female “Julius Caesar” at Actors Shakespeare Project earlier in the season ,and this is another fine effort and another milestone for OWI in its development as a troupe.

Still, to get a foothold and survive, smaller companies need to find their audience. “Red Velvet” deserves to be seen and appreciated.

The OWI (Bureau of Theatre) production of Lolita Chakrabarti’s “Red Velvet.” Directed by Bryn Boice. At the Plaza Theatre in the Boston Center for the Arts through June 16. officeofwarinformation.com

Matt Arnold and Spencer Parli Tew in “Red Velvet.” Photo Credit, O.W.I. (Bureau of Theatre)