An intriguing collaboration between Cincinnati Shakespeare Company and Ensemble Theatre Cincinnati is currently in full swing. The former has staged Shakespeare’s great 1603 tragedy Othello, in a production by guest director Christopher V. Edwards using a modern military setting. Cincy Shakes’ artistic director Brian Isaac Phillips has headed two blocks east to ETC to stage Lolita Chakrabarti’s 2012 play, Red Velvet, about the first black actor to play Othello on the London stage in 1833.
A quick recap of Shakespeare’s play: Othello is a dark-skinned Moorish general who valiantly leads the armies of Venice, but runs afoul of colleagues and rulers when he secretly marries Desdemona, the daughter of a Venetian senator. Iago, perhaps Shakespeare’s most notorious villain, is Othello’s chief aide, secretly envious of his superior’s success. He undermines him with psychological deception. Deceived into believing his innocent wife is unfaithful, Othello murders Desdemona.
By the 19th-century, Othello had become a staple of the London stage, especially when portrayed by the renowned British actor Edmund Kean in blackface, a long-standing stage tradition. When Kean collapsed onstage in 1833 during a performance of Othello, another actor needed to replace him. (Kean died a few weeks later.) Kean’s son Charles — onstage as Iago when his father took ill — was passed over for an African-American performer, Ira Aldridge, who had toured in the role in the British provinces. Many of Kean’s devotees opposed this replacement, critics unjustly condemned Aldridge’s performance with racist remarks and he was removed after just two performances. Aldridge continued to perform the role across Europe for three decades, but never returned to London. (Chakrabarti’s retelling frames the 1833 story with scenes in 1867 near the end of Aldridge’s career.)
William Oliver Watkins plays Othello for Cincy Shakes; Ken Early brings Aldridge to life in Red Velvet. Both actors provide stately, powerful performances. Watkins is true to Othello’s “free and open nature” by trusting his advisors — and he is therefore easily duped. Early’s Aldridge is obsessive and meticulous about his onstage performances, constantly striving for perfection. Fellow actors object to his race and his “Yankee” roots (Aldridge began his career in New York). Only Ellen Tree (Kelly Mengelkoch), the actress playing Desdemona, heeds his suggestions about their onstage interactions.
At Cincy Shakes, veteran Nicholas Rose brings Iago to seething life with charismatic, chilling direct addresses to the audience. At Ensemble, Aldridge’s principal opposition comes from the bombastic Charles Kean, ably played by Jared Joplin. He’s not a schemer; instead, he simply stomps about the stage demanding his own arrogant way. We are as appalled by the fulminations of Desdemona’s father Brabantio in Cincy Shakes’ Othello (played by Barry Mulholland) as we are by Kean’s outbursts and the critics’ appallingly unjust descriptions of Aldridge’s onstage performance in Red Velvet. Our modern reactions to these stories are strengthened by contemporary attitudes about racism.
But both productions also highlight a second set of issues swirling in today’s world: treatment of women whose attitudes are dismissed or demeaned. In Red Velvet, Aldridge’s loving British wife (Becca Howell) struggles to be supportive across his angry moods, his distractions and the life she must live to support his career. Mengelkoch’s Tree is also Charles Kean’s fiancée, and he is astonished when she challenges his foolish, self-serving assessments of Aldridge’s theatrical talent.
In fact, Tree is a factor in Aldridge’s ouster when she lingers in his dressing room discussing the physical details of a scene they share as Othello and Desdemona: her presence is misinterpreted by those who want to oust Aldridge; it’s not unlike the way Iago frames Desdemona’s naïve support for Cassio as proof of her unfaithfulness.
These themes give these productions the air of contemporaneity, highlighting aspects of human behavior that still shape how we act and interact. It’s exciting to see classic works and stories of historic circumstances presented as relevant and still persistent. Thanks to the paring of these productions, Cincinnati theatergoers have a rare chance to glimpse issues of today through the filter of the past.