Friday, February 1, 2019

Knee Deep in the Firsts

When you see as many plays as I do, it's rare to be bowled over by a production.

I'm not saying I don't often see incredibly well-executed productions, plays that move me or have me doubled over in laughter, but, generally speaking, I'd already heard raves about the play ahead of time. Or seen a glowing review.

But go away for a couple of weeks and I find myself so out of the loop that I have no clue what I'm in for, or even that the multi-faceted Acts of Faith Festival has apparently begun. For regular playgoers, this is the season when we're seeing multiple plays a week just to stay current. And, just to be claar, the "faith" part is not about religion.

So when I headed out to the Gottwald Playhouse to see Quill's production of "Red Velvet," I had no clue what I was in for.

Turns out what I got was an incredibly well-acted play with a fascinating story based on actual events, along with a healthy dose of "Othello" dialog thrown in. No doubt about it, that's a major score.

My back feels twice my age.

The story was based on the life of black actor Ira Aldridge, considered one of the greatest Shakespearean stage actors in 19th century Europe, who necessarily emigrated to Europe to escape discrimination in the U.S. in the 1820s. When he was hired to play Othello as a replacement for the famous British actor Edmund Kean, who was dying, trouble erupted.

I remember 22. Fearless and stupid.

Although some of the cast members could accept a black in a black man's role, most of them were mired in their long-held prejudices. Even when audiences made clear their appreciation for Aldridge's stellar acting skills with standing ovations, the theater's board of directors feared reprisal and fired him. He found a way to carry on acting, albeit in an unsatisfying manner.

We like new, based on the old.

Listening to the characters read reviews of the 1833 production actually made some audience members gasp and murmur out loud, they were that racially offensive. The N-word was used, remarks were made about a savage touching a white woman and one reviewer wrote that African lips were not fit to speak the English language, much less the hallowed words of Shakespeare.

It's a drink, not a contractual obligation.

Fascinating as the story was, it was the cast that made it shine. Jamar Jones was completely assured playing Ira with confidence and a voice that lifted to the rafters. In the scenes where he was old, you could hear the weariness of fighting a racially divisive world in his voice and see the weight of the battle in his stooped shoulders.

Marvelous, isn't it, that at my age there can still be firsts?

The entire cast was uniformly good, from the youthful, entitled smugness of Cole Metz as Kean's son to Frances Sexton as Ellen, the actress who played Desdemona to Aldridge's Othello with a willingness to try a more naturalistic acting method suggested by Aldridge. As always, Stevie Rice played his character Henry to great comedic effect, but it was his remarks about the unfairness of how blacks were then being treated that made his character so likable.

Before the show, I'd run into a woman I knew a lifetime ago, the only woman I've ever seen walk into a room and be swept up unexpectedly into dancing the polka and doing a magnificent job of it. Although I've always envied her for that, I didn't bring it up last night.

Then at intermission - which, as I learned from this play was apparently called interval in the 19th century - I happened on the former theater critic in the lobby. Like me, he was as completely taken by the story of a seminal theater figure neither of us had so much as heard of as by the top-notch acting.

Marvelous, isn't it, that my first Acts of Faith Festival production this season could be not only engrossing, but so utterly relevant?

Once again proving that even a heathen knows exceptional theater when she sees it. No faith required.

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