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Re-examining classic art through a modern lens is a tricky one, as the playful, bickering comedians of “Red Velvet” readily argue. So it’s a relief that playwright Lolita Chakrabarti chose not to spell out the contemporary subtext of her bold, red-inked 1800s play. Instead, she asks the audience to read between the lines.

The loosely fact-based narrative of Ira Aldridge, the first black performer to play Othello on a London stage, is metatheatrical at first sight: 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 nasty exchanges about acting techniques, onstage intimacy, whitewashing and purpose. theater civics.

These types of rehearsal room conversations have become increasingly common in recent years, even if this broader dialogue is simply catching up with Chakrabarti, who wrote the piece a decade ago. But the playwright skilfully makes such allusions without being heavy-handed. In fact, the most glaring parallels between “Red Velvet” and today’s world can only be unintentional.

‘Red Velvet’ spotlights pioneering black actor who played Othello

When Amari Cheatom’s Aldridge reflects on Russia’s reluctance to recognize Poland’s autonomy – “They have nervous leaders, worried about who is hiding in the dark” – he may as well be talking about the invasion of Ukraine by Vladimir Putin. A character expresses outrage at the idea of ​​a black American actor like Aldridge playing Shylock in ‘The Merchant of Venice,’ after the impeccable John Douglas Thompson recently did it for the Shakespeare Theater on the same stage at the Michael R. Klein Theatre. A line on English isolationism today reads like a veiled reference to Brexit.

Crucially, though, this play about a performer pushed into a role on short notice — with Aldridge replacing Edmund Kean as Othello after the legendary actor falls ill — finds its own cast faced with a similar predicament. Performing with only days of prep and still finding her bearings, Kimberly Gilbert replaced Tro Shaw with aplomb on Wednesday night’s show, while switching between varying accents and languages, no less. Considering that Shakespeare Theater’s production of ‘Our Town’ recently wrapped up a run in which coronavirus concerns prevented it from staging a single performance with its planned cast, the ‘show must go on’ plot of ‘ Red Velvet” is particularly relevant.

As for Cheatom, the actor amazes. Carried with grace and gravity, it provides a stage presence worthy of Aldridge’s esteemed reputation. But it is Cheatom’s palpable but contained resentment, channeling the deep volatility of an artist long tortured by prejudice, that makes his Aldridge such a compelling creation. Although most of the play is set in 1833, at Covent Garden’s Theater Royal, the 1867 prologue and epilogue allow Cheatom to further explore Aldridge’s denouement.

The supporting cast is also up to snuff. As Pierre Laporte, the director of the Theater Royal who staked his reputation on Aldridge’s exploits, Michael Glenn perfectly embodies the fickle nature of the ally. Emily DeForest plays ingenue Ellen Tree, Aldridge’s Othello’s Desdemona, with an appealing mix of courage, humor and curiosity. Jaye Ayres-Brown is delightfully repulsive as Kean’s son Charles, portraying the entitlement through over-the-top posturing, reductive rhetoric and, ultimately, an all-out tantrum. Samuel Adams and David Bishins deftly inhabit “Othello” actors from different sides of the abolition debate, while Shannon Dorsey plays maid Connie with quiet indignation.

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“Red Velvet” also offers a sense of spectacle, thanks to You-Shin Chen’s lush, rotating set, which rotates from a dressing room to a living room to the stage of the Royal Theater 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 tableau in Act 2. Rodrigo Muñoz’s costumes are suitably lavish, and Karin Graybash’s sound design elevates the piece’s unsettling conclusion.

As Pierre states in Aldridge’s initial casting argument, “Theatre is a political act, a debate of our time.” Chakrabarti engages in this thesis, alluding to modern discussions and injustices by ruthlessly reopening the wounds of the past. “Red Velvet”, it turns out, is not a celebration of an artistic pioneer. It is a tragedy of intolerance.

red velvet, by Lolita Chakrabarti. Directed by Jade King Carroll. Stage design, You-Shin Chen. Costumes, Rodrigo Muñoz. Lighting, Link Yuki Nakase. Sound and Music, Karin Graybash. Wigs, Danna Rosedahl. About 2h30. $35 to $120. Through July 17 at the Michael R. Klein Theater, 450 Seventh St. NW. 202-547-1122.

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