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Theater Review: OSU Presents Columbus Premiere of Riveting, Relevant Historical Drama ‘Red Velvet’

Richard Sanford Richard Sanford Theater Review: OSU Presents Columbus Premiere of Riveting, Relevant Historical Drama ‘Red Velvet’(l to r) Sterling Wesley as Ira Aldridge, Ashley Bice as Margaret Aldridge, and Betsy Huggins as Ellen Tree in The Ohio State University Department of Theatre’s production of Red Velvet. Photo by J. Briggs Cormier.
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Historical drama and varying accents can prove difficult for even experienced, adult actors, a difficulty that’s compounded for actors still learning their craft. So OSU’s local premiere of Lolita Chakrabarti’s British hit Red Velvet, set in the rough-and-tumble London theatrical scene of the 1830s (with a framing sequence in 1867), and given a vibrant mounting directed by guest artist Ted Lange, stands as an even more impressive achievement.

We meet Ira Aldridge (Sterling Wesley), a black American, ambling, seeming older than his 60 years, in a Polish dressing room preparing for King Lear and gearing up for a triumphant tour that will bring him back to his native America. A tenacious journalist’s (Shaciah Lee) probing questions about his abbreviated London debut as Othello send us back three decades to that stage.

The young Aldridge arrives on this larger, storied stage in Covent Garden trailing excellent notices from the provinces, turning an existing troupe inside out when he steps in for the renowned, now-fallen-ill actor Edmund Kean. Primary pushback on the first casting of a black actor to play Othello predictably comes from Kean’s son, Charles (Brad Rinehart), who finds himself stuck as Iago instead of sliding into what he saw as his birthright. Charles’ engagement to Ellen Tree (Betsy Huggins), the production’s Desdemona, amplifies his ugliness, as does the persistence of his friend and partner in crime, Terrence (Tony White).

The shadows of how the group will treat Aldridge loom from the first moments we see them, in the way they treat their gay manager (and Aldridge’s long-time friend and advocate) Pierre (Blake Noonan) and the only other black character in the play, the maid Connie (Jordan Booker). This Red Velvet understands, to its bones, the shape of power in any group, and especially the corrosive nature of that perceived power in a niche group like a theatrical troupe.

(l to r) Sterling Wesley as Ira Aldridge and Betsy Huggins as Ellen Tree in The Ohio State University Department of Theatre’s production of Red Velvet. Photo by J. Briggs Cormier.

Lange and his cast also know how to twist the knife, reinforcing how tenuous allyship can be when consequences come into play. Aldridge’s primary defender among the existing company, Henry (Lior Livshits) only takes that defense so far. Livshits gives a brilliant read on Forester, the novelty chaser is present but shaded with a desperate hunger for change and deep insecurity. Lange gets stirring performances across the board, in part by understanding and using a cast at the age where that kind of betrayal first comes into relief for many of us.

Wesley makes the most of the rich character of Aldridge. Red Velvet sets the character up as the future coming, not only in racial acceptance, but in more naturalistic acting styles, and Wesley takes full advantage of this without casting him in too-broad strokes. He keeps wounded, ferocious humanity vibrating through, informing and undercutting the talent.

The threat of his talent comes through in interaction with Charles and Ellen, both spellbinding performances. Rinehart’s Charles keeps the fear that he’ll never overcome his father’s shadow and his own wounds inform the bullying, grasping we witness, but Rinehart never lets the character or the audience’s complicity off the hook. It’s a grim, unsparing, sad look at someone who can’t even manage mirth when he laughs. Huggins’ Ellen captures the flinty quality of an actor coming alive now that they’ve finally found a partner their equal and who takes them seriously. Her chemistry with Wesley sizzles, but she also shows the real chemistry and appeal of Charles. The triangle never feels lopsided or cartoonish.

Booker and Noonan play with their sides of the same coin, support of “the artists” and the sense that everyone in the room thinks they’re disposable. These actors intimately know the subtle, tight confines of what they’re given to do and within that they catch fire.

The production doesn’t quite overcome the more staid, underline-the-themes talky second act, but neither did the original production with Adrian Lester I saw in Brooklyn. Red Velvet is a barbed, writhing look at the ugly history of theater and the Western world, with great performances and a huge, beating heart.

Red Velvet runs through February 15 with performances at 7:30 p.m. Tuesday through Saturday and 3:00 p.m. Sunday. For tickets and more info, visit https://theatre.osu.edu/events/red-velvet

(l to r) Ashley Bice as Margaret Aldridge, Sterling Wesley as Ira Aldridge, and Betsy Huggins as Ellen Tree in The Ohio State University Department of Theatre’s production of Red Velvet. Photo by J. Briggs Cormier.
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