Amari Cheatom astounds in the Shakespeare Theater’s ‘Red Velvet’

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Re-examining classic art through a modern lens is a delicate matter, as the bantering, bickering thespians of “Red Velvet” readily discuss. So it’s a relief that playwright Lolita Chakrabarti has opted not to spell out the contemporary subtext of her 1800s-set play in bold, red ink. Instead, she asks the audience to read between the lines.

The loosely fact-based account of Ira Aldridge, the first Black performer to play Othello on a London stage, is metatheatrical on its face: It’s a play within a play, with actors playing actors. In director Jade King Carroll’s exquisite Shakespeare Theater Company production, the characters engage in ornate and ornery exchanges about acting techniques, onstage intimacy, whitewashing and theater’s civic purpose.

These types of rehearsal hall conversations have become increasingly common in recent years, even if that broader dialogue is simply catching up with Chakrabarti, who wrote the play a decade ago. But the playwright deftly makes such allusions without wielding a heavy hand. In fact, the most blatant parallels between “Red Velvet” and today’s world can only be unintentional.

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When Amari Cheatom’s Aldridge muses on Russia’s reluctance to recognize Poland’s autonomy – “They’ve got nervous leaders, uneasy about who is lurking in the darkness” – he may as well be talking about Vladimir Putin’s invasion of Ukraine. One character expresses outrage at the notion of a Black American actor such as Aldridge playing Shylock in “The Merchant of Venice,” after the impeccable John Douglas Thompson recently did so for the Shakespeare Theater on the same Michael R. Klein Theater stage. A line about English isolationism nowadays reads as a veiled Brexit reference.

But most pointedly, this play about a performer thrust into a role on short notice – with Aldridge stepping in for Edmund Kean as Othello after the legendary actor falls ill – finds its own cast confronting a similar predicament. Performing with just a few days’ preparation and still finding her bearings, Kimberly Gilbert filled in for Tro Shaw with aplomb at Wednesday night’s show, all while toggling between varied accents and languages, no less. Considering the Shakespeare Theater production of “Our Town” recently concluded a run in which coronavirus issues kept it from staging a single performance with its intended cast, the “show must go on” plot of “Red Velvet” is particularly pertinent.

As for Cheatom, the actor astonishes. Carrying himself with grace and gravitas, he provides a stage presence worthy of Aldridge’s esteemed reputation. But it is Cheatom’s palpable but restrained resentment, channeling the deep-seated volatility of an artist long tortured by prejudice, that makes his Aldridge such a compelling creation. Although the bulk of the play is set in 1833, at Covent Garden’s Theater Royal, the 1867-set prologue and epilogue allow Cheatom to further explore Aldridge’s unraveling.

The supporting cast is also up to the task. As Pierre Laporte, the Theater Royal manager staking his reputation to Aldridge’s exploits, Michael Glenn impeccably embodies allyship’s fickle nature. Emily DeForest plays ingenue Ellen Tree, the Desdemona to Aldridge’s Othello, with an appealing blend of pluck, humor and curiosity. Jaye Ayres-Brown is deliciously repugnant as Kean’s son Charles, portraying entitlement through exaggerated posture, reductive rhetoric and, eventually, an all-out temper tantrum. Samuel Adams and David Bishins ably inhabit “Othello” actors on different sides of the abolition debate, while Shannon Dorsey plays maid Connie with understated indignation.

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“Red Velvet” also offers a sense of spectacle, thanks to You-Shin Chen’s lush, rotating set, which spins from a dressing room to a parlor room to the Theater Royal stage itself. Yuki Nakase Link makes several clever lighting choices, illuminating Cheatom in moonlight at the end of Act 1 before framing the cast in a striking Act 2 tableau. Rodrigo Muñoz’s costumes are appropriately lavish, and Karin Graybash’s sound design elevates the play’s unsettling conclusion.

As Pierre declares in the initial argument over Aldridge’s casting, “Theater is a political act, a debate of our times.” Chakrabarti commits to this thesis, alluding to modern discussions and injustices by ruthlessly reopening wounds of the past. “Red Velvet,” it turns out, isn’t a celebration of an artistic trailblazer. It’s a tragedy of intolerance.

Red Velvetto Lolita Chakrabarti. Directed by Jade King Carroll. Scenic design, You-Shin Chen. Costumes, Rodrigo Muñoz. Lighting, Yuki Nakase Link. Sound and music, Karin Graybash. Wigs, Danna Rosedahl. About 2½ hours. $ 35- $ 120. Through July 17 at Michael R. Klein Theater, 450 Seventh St. NW. 202-547-1122. shakespearetheatre.org.

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