There are many things to like about San Francisco Playhouse's production of Lolita Chakrabarati's "Red Velvet." Ms. Chakrabarati has created a fictionalized recounting about the real-life appearances in Europe of Ira Aldridge, a black American actor, the first non-white actor to play Shakespearean leads on a European stage. The story, from the 1830s, is true. For hundreds of years, even Othello was played by a white actor in blackface.
Carl Lumbly plays Aldridge and Susi Damilano plays Ellen, the centerpieces of this drama. They exude a sexual energy that can lead only to downfall, Aldridge unable to curb his fierceness as an actor and Ellen making little effort to curb her attraction to him.
Elena Wright plays three roles, including Aldridge's wife Margaret, Tim Kniffin is an excellent Charles Kean, Richard Lewis James gets to display his Henry Higgins English and Patrick Russell his Maurice Chevalier. Devin O'brien plays Henry and Britney Frazier has a small but important roll as the theater's Jamaican maid and voice of caution to Ira.
Language is key here. Aldridge has assumed the upper-crust English he knows he must use to succeed, but when he is angry his true vernacular bubbles to the surface. We need to keep reminding ourselves this is 1833. Britain's economy depends on American cotton produced by black slaves, and the English attitude about cheap labor sounds terrifyingly similar to our own concerning immigration.
The set is eye-popping. Gary English has designed a masterful Victorian drawing room which blends well with Abra Berman's costumes.
If this show has a fault it is that it feels somewhat awkward, in that the author has chosen to impose a twenty-first century sensibility upon nineteenth century characters. Then again, one of the show's strengths is pointing out to us how little some things have changed.
RATINGS ☼ ☼ ☼ BANG
The San Francisco Theater Blog Awards Division awards "Red Velvet" Three Stars with a BANGLE OF PRAISE. Right now Act II feels a bit forced. I would wait a week or two until the actors settle into their material.
"Red Velvet" is ultimately about betrayal, as is so much Shakespeare. The Bangle of Praise is for reminding us of that miraculous connection between great actors and powerful drama.
San Francisco Playhouse
450 Post Street, San Francisco
Second Floor of Kensington Park Hotel
Through June 25