Wednesday, April 20, 2016

Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti


By Joe Straw

“Oh! We’re doing that kind of acting!” – Nicholas Cage to John Travolta in rehearsals for the film Face/Off

The Junction Theatre presents The West Coast Premiere of Red Velvet written by Lolita Chakrabarti and directed by Benjamin Pohlmeier through April 30, 2016 at the Atwater Playhouse. 

I enjoyed this remarkable show for the potential of the play, the writing, and some very interesting actors showcasing their talent. Certainly, if you wanted to know anything about the great Ira Aldridge, this is the show to see!

Love does strange things and it is no different when Polish newspaper journalist, Halina Wozniak (Kailena Mai), sneaks into an important artist’s dressing room with a newly acquainted friend, Casimir (Sean C Dwyer).

The time is in the summer of 1867.  The place is the dressing room in a fancy theatre in Lódź, Poland.

Halina really wants nothing to do with Casimir.  He is a rather clumsy young lad, not knowing the first thing about where to place his hands on a young lady.  And as an aside, he would like nothing better than to have his way with her in a dark corner.  But, she is a dedicated young journalist who, despite Casimir’s pawing, will stop at nothing to get her story.

Moment later, they are caught by Terence (Adam Chacon) who wants the girl out of his employers’ dressing room. Halina will not leave despite both men wanting to physically run her out of the room. 

Halina is determined.  

Suddenly Ira Aldridge (Paul Outlaw) steps into the room.  He is an aging, and very accomplished actor at this point in his career.  At sixty years old, he has little physical energy with which to throw the journalist out so through vocal prowess, he enlists his employees to remove her from the room, immediately. 
But Halina is not giving up so easily, and finally Aldridge relents and allows her to do her job.

(Wikipedia has Aldridge active years stopping at 1862, five years before this scene.)

Immediately, Aldridge sees that Halina is a rank amateur but continues with the interview as we travel back in time, the spring of 1833 to be precise.

Edmund Kean (not seen), a handsome and celebrated Shakespearean actor of his day, has died suddenly at the ripe old age of forty-five.  And now, the company has no one to play Othello.   

But lo, the company hovers around his son, Charles Kean (Ben Warner), age 22, expecting he will step into the role of Othello.  (In real life, he is a pugnacious wart of a man and really not suited for the role.) 

And in the company of his peers, his one good quality is being arrogant, other than that his disposition lacks refinement.  He assumes he will take over the role of Othello with no problems at all.  All the while, he grieves, oh, so, silently, and waits.  

But the producer, Pierre Laporte (Colin Campbell), lacks confidence in Charles’ ability to play the role of Othello.    

Laporte has another plan.  That is to have a newcomer, Aldridge, a black man to play Othello.  Surely that was unheard of in that day, in Anglo London England.  The one person happy about the developments is Connie (Dee Dee Stephens), a maid and a black woman.

The rest of the cast has different points of view about the matter.  Of course, Charles Kean, is against it, wanting the role of Othello for himself. Betty Lovell (Amanda Charney) seems ambivalent, as does Bernard Warde (Adam Chacon).  Henry Forrester (Sean C Dwyer) and Ellen Tree (Nicola Bertram) are excited about the idea, Forrester has seen Aldrich in a production, and Tree is progressively open-minded.

Nicola Bertram is impressive as Ellen Tree.  Her sultry demeanor lights up the stage with her presence and craft – making every moment count.  There is not one false note in her performance.  The interruption in the dressing room scene worked to perfection. It was delightful to witness the manner in which she manages one predicament to the next with so much life and a rich backstory.  This is a performance not to miss.  

Sean C Dwyer is exceptional as Henry Forrester.  Tall and handsome with a charming personality he also manages to convey a life lived in the theatre.  In addition to that role, he plays Casimir, a Polish stagehand.  

Lolita Chakrabarti’s play has some issues in the manner of progression.  While most of the work is exceptional, there are moments when the play becomes something else, partially because of the writing, and partially under Benjamin Pohlmeier’s direction.  

At times we move away from the Ira Aldridge story, that of a black actor overcoming obstacles to reach the pinnacle of his career, to a story that becomes, at times, trite.  For example, take the acting lesson scene leading up to the performance of Othello.  It is funny and an inside joke to actors but it takes away from Chakrabarti’s ambitious project.

And speaking of that scene in particular, and under Pohlmeier’s direction, there is not enough interplay between the actors center stage  (Aldrich and Tree) and the other actors watching the rehearsal. More needs to made of those moments. Aldrich’s greeting to Desdemona is stilted, forced, and not in the manner for which Aldrich would have approved, and this happens three or four times in this particular scene.

Aldrich has to establish himself as the ultimate thespian, a man first and foremost dedicated to the truth, and to show the others, he is capable of playing Othello, and playing it differently. The others in this scene must form camps, relationships, for and against.  The conflict in this scene must be greater than what was witnessed.

There must be more to the character of Ira Aldridge than what was given in the performance by Paul Outlaw. The intangibles must become tangible to create a character that commands the room, in his way about the stage, and in the strength of his voice.  Losing the middle age pouch would help. An actor must be masterful in his own dressing room. The first scene needs more work to give Aldridge, the actor, definition with his relationship to the others. (He must be God at this point in his career.) And the relationship between Terrance and Aldridge - to remove the newspaper reporter in the first scene - needs defining to bring out the humor of the scene.  

And while I’m speaking on the first scene Kailena Mai’s work as Halina Wozniak was excellent.  Mai is a stunning actor with a very nice Polish accent.  There’s something to be said of her strength in that scene and the way she manages to stay in the room.   All in all it was superior work for this Seattle native.

Also in the writing one would have never guessed that Ellen Tree would one day be married to Charles Kean or that she even cared for him.  Tree, at this point in her life, would be exploring her sexual options and the development of a relationship between Tree, Kean and Aldridge might help. One saw a great deal of this in Bertram’s performance but adding more in the writing would help considerably.  

Colin Campbell did well as Pierre Laporte on this night. Laporte has a lot on his plate, hiring Aldridge, serving as a producer, keeping the investors happy, and lastly having the actors jump on board.  It is not an easy life for Laporte. After the reviews come in Laporte has a lengthy discussion with Aldridge, and one that may not have progressed the play.  This is a bridging scene and one that sends the talent to the opposite side of the bridge never to return. It also answers the question of why Aldridge never went back to England. Rather than having an ending, here and now, the scene should play as a battle to stay together.

There’s not a lot for Amanda Charney to do as Betty Lovell.  One is not sure of her objective or where she was going. Certainly there’s more to create with the relationship on stage, how she felt about Aldridge, and who she could enlist to join her side (whatever that might be) to favor one actor over the other. There’s more to think about here.

Dee Dee Stephens had her moments as Connie, the black maid, to everyone else on stage.  There were some nice touches to the role, especially with the interactions of the actors, however brief, and then to Aldridge. Still there is some very nice work going on.  

Erin Elizabeth Reed has a commanding presence on stage.  She is lovely to watch, tall, and her craft is subtle and remarkable.  But, the one thing Margaret Aldridge, or any girlfriend should not do is to leave her future husband in a room alone with another actress.  That is just courting disaster!  Reed was fun to watch and the reason I go to theatre - to see the gems.

Adam Chacon does well as Terrence and Bernard Warde.  There is more work to be done, especially one that defines a physical relationship with a superior,  and also one that defines an objective that moves the play along.

Other members of the crew are as follows:

Dee Dee Stephens – Associate Producer
Douglas Gabrielle – Lighting Designer
Kiley Hannon – Scenic Artist
James Ferrero – Sound Designer
Kristina A. Moore – Costume Designer – The costumes were excellent.
Kenny Zhou – Assistant Costume Designer
Christina Olson, David Iker Sanchez – Stitchers
Mel Raymundo – Graphic Designer
Jerry Blackburn – Production Stage Manager
Maya Martinez – Assistant Stage Manager
Steve Moyer Public Relations – Press Representative
Ed Krieger – Production Photographer
Erin Elizabeth Reed – Box Office Manager – And delightful actor

Run! Run!  And take someone who loves to step back in time.
Fridays and Saturdays at 8:00 p.m. and Sundays at 5:00 p.m.,
March 26 – April 30, 2016


Brown Paper Tickets 24/7 at 1-800-838-3006, or online at

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