In its West Coast premiere at Atwater Playhouse, “Red Velvet,” Lolita Chakrabarti’s 2012 study of legendary actor Ira Aldridge, conveys the power of the stage and its lingering impact.
In 1867, Aldridge (valiant Paul Outlaw) is on what would be his final tour in Lodz, Poland, where a local journalist (Kailena Mai) seduces her way backstage to attempt an interview.
Flash back to London, circa 1833, and after Edmund Kean collapses onstage, manager Pierre Laporte (Colin Campbell) enlists old friend Aldridge to substitute as Othello.
The objections from Kean’s son Charles (Ben Warner) and others are mirrored by the London press, who balk at a black actor playing Shakespeare’s Moor, ironically enough when Parliament is considering abolition of slavery.
Conversely, there’s Margaret (Erin Elizabeth Reed), Aldridge’s sympathetic English wife, and Ellen Tree (fine-tuned Nicola Bertram), Charles’ fiancee and the production’s Desdemona, whose fascination with Aldridge’s spontaneity elicits some of the play's sharpest writing.
Written as a vehicle for Chakrabarti's husband, Adrian Lester, “Velvet” isn’t flawless. The exposition revels in historical factoids disguised as dialogue, and certain anachronisms are detectable throughout.
Yet when Aldridge and Tree demonstrate the difference real stage connection makes to the era’s pose-and-declaim style, or Laporte makes an unprecedented Covent Garden decision after the opening, “Red Velvet” crackles.
Director Benjamin Pohlmeier doesn't escape a periodic static quality to his stage pictures -- the green room scenes could be out of Jane Austen -- and Outlaw, an accomplished experimental theater artist, occasionally strains to achieve the requisite thunderous presence.
Still, his internal reactions are vivid, right up to the final donning of whiteface to play Lear. The surrounding ensemble is proficient, with standouts in Bertram, who recalls the emerging Harriet Walter, Dee Dee Stephens' quietly eloquent servant and Campbell, his slow-burn frustration reaching a galvanic faceoff.
Here and elsewhere, “Red Velvet” moves beyond a surefire theater-history-buff demographic to make a potent case for how things have and haven’t changed over the centuries.