Naturalism is a hot potato in Red Velvet, a new U.K. Import about the remarkable life of Ira Aldridge. Aldridge, portrayed with intensity and alacrity by the British actor Adrian Lester, was a black American who emigrated to London in the 1820s and caused a sensation in 1833 when he stepped into a prestigious London production of Othello. The play, written with occasional Kushneresque flourishes by Lester's wife, Lolita Chakrabarti, examines the merits and risks of artistic boundary-pushing and takes a fresh look at the age old question of how real is, in fact, too real. (The show runs through April 20 at Brooklyn's St. Ann's Warehouse.)
The play's smart, provocative middle stretch centers on backstage intrigue as the cast of Othello, anxious over the hospitalization of leading actor Edmund Kean, adjusts to the shocking arrival of Aldridge (''the best man for the job,'' as he's described with a wink) to fill in. There is a surprisingly playful tone, reminiscent of the sideways racial humor of Mel Brooks, as Aldridge is introduced to his scrambled-faced colleagues.
Some in the company are more perturbed by the actor’s American accent than his race. There's a nice nod to dramaturgy as Aldridge and the actress playing Desdemona (Charlotte Lucas) have a civilized debate over the difference in definition, depending on how it's pronounced, of the word content. But another actor (Oliver Ryan) cannot stand Aldridge's casting for what he believes is a political stunt reeking of fashionable liberalism. Despite Ryan's unfortunately whisper-pitched voice—he has line readings that sound eerily like Mr. Burns from The Simpsons—the character's pseudo-intellectual argument is given room to breathe. ''He will prevent [the audience] from escaping reality,'' he pleads. ''What we do works. Why change it?''
The famous handkerchief scene of Othello is presented in the flamingly theatrical style of 1833—all super-enunciated dialogue, rigid stances, and exaggerated gestures. The irony, of course, is that amid all that artificiality, it was the avant-garde notion of a black man playing a black man that caused an uproar (grotesque next-day newspaper reviews are read aloud) and prompted Aldridge's expulsion. Though he enjoyed a successful career in Europe and was given a state funeral when he died in Poland in 1867, he never performed again in London or the United States.
Poland, in fact, is the setting of the play's pandering, unfortunate framing device, in which the elder Aldridge booms forth with expository statements to a starstruck young fan. It's a pat gimmick, but it does yield the play's one moment of true theatrical danger, in the curtain call. Having spent the entirety of the final scene applying makeup to play King Lear, Lester takes his bow in the most unnatural guise imaginable—as a bearded old white man. B(Tickets: stannswarehouse.org or 718-254-8779)