Lindsay Smiling gives one of the most powerful performances on the New Jersey stage in recent years in “Red Velvet,” currently playing at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey in Madison. It’s a play about a great actor, and Smiling — crucially — conveys that actor’s skill and audacity with a commanding, charismatic performance.
The 2012 play by British writer Lolita Chakrabarti, which is making its New Jersey premiere in Madison, is about Ian Aldridge, an American-born actor of African descent who broke an unspoken color line in 1833 when he played the title role in “Othello” in London. Chakrabarti did extensive research on Aldridge, about whom little had previously been written, then wrote a timeless, tragic tale about those who try to push society forward and those who resist change.
The play, directed here by Bonnie J. Monte (who is also the Shakespeare Theatre’s artistic director), is bookended by scenes of Aldridge on tour in Poland, near the end of his life, in 1867. But it takes place mainly in London’s Covent Garden Theatre, where — 34 years earlier — Aldridge had been asked to sub for the famous actor Edmund Kean, who had collapsed onstage during a performance and was unable to return to the role.
Aldridge’s main nemesis is Kean’s son, Charles (David Macdonald), who is playing Iago in the production. The two butt heads from the moment Aldridge steps into the room.
The theater is no place to take a stand on a social issue, Charles argues. “People come to the theater to get away from reality,” he says.
He keeps maintaining that the theater’s patrons aren’t ready for a black Othello, but it’s pretty clear that he just isn’t ready for it himself. Eventually, he throws a fit and quits, forcing producer Pierre Laporte (David Foubert) to elevate a Bernard Warde (John Little), a mediocre actor in a minor role, to Iago.
The play goes well enough to make its cast happy, but the London newspapers’ theater critics — stodgy defenders of the status quo — are uniformly negative, and viciously insult Aldridge. Laporte, an old friend of Aldridge who supports his acting innovations (though he wants him to tone it down a bit), feels pressure to close the production.
I won’t say how the story ends, though you can probably guess, given that the play starts with Aldridge as a virtual exile in Poland — an actor, we are told, who never performed in London again after his groundbreaking “Othello.”
The story isn’t just about racial progress. It’s also about acting itself. Aldridge wants to bring a more modern kind of artistry to Covent Garden, with a less formal, more naturalistic approach rather than the stiff, showy gestures of old.
“I … speak as I feel,” he says. “Truth alters rhythm and gesture.”
This doesn’t sit well with Charles, nor with the humorously stuffy Warde. But the other actors are more open to it. Surprisingly, Aldridge finds an ally in his Desdemona: Ellen Tree (Victoria Mack), who happens to be Kean’s girlfriend, but stands up to him when necessary.
Smiling is not the only impressive performer here. Macdonald is almost equally ferocious as Charles Kean, and Mack makes Tree’s awakening believable. Little and Savannah DesOrmeaux (as one of the other actresses, Betty Lowell), convey the shortcomings of these characters’ craftsmanship just as effectively as Smiling conveys Aldridge’s mastery.
Also deserving praise is Shannon Harris as Connie, a Jamaican-born servant who endures being treated shabbily by everyone else with stoic dignity, but comes to vivid life when she finally has a chance to speak to Aldridge alone.
“Red Velvet” will be at the Shakespeare Theatre of New Jersey at Drew University in Madison through Sept. 25; visit shakespearenj.org.