Red Velvet

RedVelvet_1211

Dion Johnstone as Ira Aldridge, CST

Chicago Shakespeare Theater presented an excellent production of Red Velvet by Lolita Chakrabarti. The story of the first African American to play Othello on the London state in 1833, the story explores racism. As we know, abolition was a hot issue in the mid-1800s. In England there were protests against the slave trade.

When Ian Keen, who starred as Othello, fell ill the manager of the Covent Garden Theater chose Ira Aldridge, a black actor from America to play Othello. Some in the cast were excited and supportive, but Ian’s son and another actor were strongly opposed.

Aldridge was a fine, thoughtful actor, whose goal was to work in London. He takes his art seriously and gives a passionate performance the first night. However, the critics were shocked to see an actor of African heritage on stage and their reviews were venomous. The manager, Pierre LaPorte is a good friend of Aldridge and he counsels the actor to tone down his performance. Yet we can see that Aldridge can’t rein in his perfectionism. His desire to bring Othello to life as he reads the play leads to disaster. A consummate professional, Aldridge pushes the edges of his performance.

The performances were all pitch perfect and the play was compelling as it showed a chapter of theater history, I wasn’t aware of. The play has been produced in London and New York. If it comes to your hometown, I highly recommend you check it out.

A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream

I expected a traditional production of A Midsummer’s Night’s Dream, but instead the Chicago Shakespeare Company went Victorian with a tip of the hat to Freud. And while a lot of updates and creative takes don’t work, this one did. I loved the set and the costumes. All the main characters wore various lavender hues, though each had a distinct outfit. The result was beautiful. I wasn’t crazy about the costumes of the forest nymphs, striped pajamas and fantastic headdresses with say 100 butterflies or 100 flowers sticking up. I get that they should be otherworldly, but this choice fell flat for me. Even worse was the kind of the faeries, Oberon, who was decked out in a puffy orange skirt and he had a wig of long black hair that reminded me of Heian era Japan.

While this is one of Shakespeare’s lightest plays, it still has the Bard’s imprint and the language is just wonderful to take in. Yes, it’s a ultra-light, but it’s nice to see Shakespeare can have such fun. It’s a perfect play to show we should all “get over ourselves.

The acting is wonderful and the idea of bring Freud in to this dream was cheeky but not over powerful.

Elizabeth Rex

The Chicago Shakespeare Theater‘s Elizabeth Rex is strong, witty and thought-provoking. Written by Timothy Findley, Elizabeth Rex is a hypothetical look at what might have transpired the night before the Earl of Essex‘s execution. Findley plays with the fact that Elizabeth went to see a Shakespearean play the night before the Earl of Essex, who plotted to overthrow the queen, was executed. Findley’s what if’s are:

  • What if the queen and Essex had an affair? According to the Windy City Times review, they didn’t.
  • What if Elizabeth at age 70 had insecurities about her femininity since she had to wield power as a woman in a man’s age?
  • What if she spent the night in the company of Shakespeare’s actor’s who’re cooped up in a barn near the theater due to curfew restrictions? (Couldn’t the queen waive them or get everyone to a more commodious venue?)
  • What if one of the actors was a gay man dying of pox with insight into gender?
The questions are fascinating. The acting was strong; dialog full of repartee; and the costumes gorgeous. From the time the lights went up energy level was full speed ahead and I was transported to Shakespeare’s ribald, trenchant, lively world. The Queen surprises Shakespeare’s troupe with a visit hoping for a diversion from Essex’s impending execution. What she gets is a questioning and prodding from Ned Lowenscroft, an actor who plays strong lead women with great veracity, we’re told. (We just saw him act in one scene and I didn’t find him particularly convincing as a woman. Some kabuki actors are better and I know they’re men too.)
Much of the play’s energy comes from the sparring between Queen Elizabeth and Ned, who spar. Ned feels he can teach the queen how to be a real woman, i.e. forgiving and emotional. The Shakespeare and the actors were secondary figures, entertaining, but not in the lime light, which was fine. The troupe all seemed to feel the Queen should pardon Essex. What I felt was missing was a voice, a genuine voice that sided with the Queen. Essex did try to seize London and lead a rebellion. No one in this troupe  agreed that “off with his head” was a smart move. It seems to me in any gathering of more than 5 people, there’s bound to be a wide range of opinion.
The first act was swift and engaging, except for an interlude with Ned’s pet bear. I’m not sure what the purpose of that was. A stab at comic relief? It didn’t work for me.
The second half lagged slightly as the play didn’t cover new ground. Ned still urges the Queen to forgive her former lover, and he reveals more about his dearest lover who gave him the pox, i.e. syphillis, the story was interesting, but I don’t want the most powerful parts of a drama to be exposition. Some of the most interesting parts of the play were retold rather than dramatized.
All in all, if you’re looking for a lively, well acted play, if you want to consider some Elizabethan hypotheticals, go see the engaging Elizabeth Rex. After seeing the play I did wonder how plausible it was. Would Elizabethans think or speak of gender in these ways? It would be interesting to find some articles on that. I don’t suggest this as a fault but rather a springboard to deeper study.