I don’t know your life. I’m not pretending to be omniscient nor do I mean to minimize your issues, but I can hedge a pretty safe bet that your personal problems will dwarf in the shadows of Ira Aldridge and Isabelle Arc. These historical figures are the subjects of two productions, Red Velvet and Mother of the Maid, currently running at Shakespeare and Company in Massachusetts’ culture rich Berkshires.
Lolita Chakrabarti’s Red Velvet tells the story of Aldridge (John Douglas Thompson), a well-known 19th century actor who made his mark playing classical roles throughout Europe. When esteemed actor Edmund Keane falls ill at London’s Covent garden while playing Othello, Aldridge is summoned as a replacement. Pierre Laporte (Joe Tapper), the company manager is quick to suggest Aldridge. What he fails to tell the acting troupe is that Aldridge is African-American. Laporte, an upbeat optimist, thinks nothing of it. However, Keane’s cast is unjustifiably unsettled by the new actor. Facing even further opposition, Aldridge must endure theater critics who judge him based more on his physical appearance than the quality of his work. In spite of audience approval, the theater board is tasked with a challenging decision to keep or remove their new replacement. Aldridge is also suspected of dalliances with his co-star, Ellen Tree (Kelley Curran), further adding to his challenges.
Told with the theatrical device of a flashback, Chakrabarti’s script maintains a vitality throughout. It would be easy to single out Thompson for his gripping portrayal, as this Obie award winner leaves an indelible stamp on every role he assumes. Red Velvet is no exception. Yet his fellow actors enhance this play to new heights that strike the perfect balance between intellect and emotion. Director Daniela Varon and her team deserve a standing ovation for mounting this important work that will hopefully transfer to the New York stage. At one point, Ira describes the potency of drama, “That’s the beauty of theatre…it’s about getting under your skin.” Based on that criteria, Red Velvet triumphs.
On the opposite side of the Shakespeare and company campus, a mother is wringing her hands and scrutinizing over her faith in Jane Anderson’s Mother of the Maid. Isabelle Arc (Tina Packer) is a steadfast woman of faith who finds herself in complete dilemma over her French peasant daughter Joan’s (Anne Troup) decision to fight against England in the hundred years’ war. Joan finds the inspiration after continuous conversations and visions from Saint Catherine (Bridget Saracino). Neither Isabelle nor her already cantankerous husband, Jacques (Nigel Gore) approve proclaiming, “You’re a stubborn, reckless girl and you have no idea what you are doing.”
Joan of Arc’s 15th century story has been told countless times in various media outlets and the tragic ending of Joan’s life is not a spoiler alert, but Anderson’s contemporary approach to the material is edgy, innovative, and thoroughly affecting. Anderson, an Emmy award-winning writer, has so deeply cut to the core of parenthood that even those without children will be left in a state of moving reflection. A particularly profound moment comes when Isabelle explains the role of motherhood to the Lady of King Charles’ court (Elizabeth Aspenlieder) : “You don’t know her. You never cleaned her nose or wiped her bum or picked the knots out of her hair,” she begins, and ends with a declaration: “You never knew her restlessness and you don’t know her fear. My child is so afraid.” Enter Kleenex.
Like Red Velvet, the company is blessed to have a “rockstar” leading actor, this time with Shakespeare & Company’s founder Tina Packer in the role of Isabel, but she is not tasked with the burden of carrying the play. Often with well-known stories from history, interpretations can become too mawkish and hokey. With Anderson’s script and Matthew Penn’s compassionate guidance, the whole ensemble unites with sympathetic and deeply felt story that will shine new light into the soul.
In addition to the two works reviewed, many other events have shaped the season at Shakespeare and Company. Within the last few weeks, they closed a marvelous compilation of Shakespeare’s works called Shakespeare and the Language that Shaped a World which ran in their charming outdoor theater. Another outdoor production, Hamlet, was staged in the on the bucolic grounds of the nearby Edith Wharton home. A truncated version of The Comedy of Errors was met with much critical acclaim before ending its run on August 23rd.
Those in the mood for a cerebral comedy still have time to catch Yasmina Reza’s two hander, The Unexpected Guest, along with Red Velvet and Mother of the Maid.
For tickets and information to Shakespeare and Company, visit their website http://www.shakespeare.org/Better yet, get out of New York for a spell and discover this gem (and the beautiful Berkshires) for yourself.