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Red Velvet (Atwater Playhouse)

It’s rare enough in a professional theatre, especially under the 99-seat plan for Los Angeles, that you walk away muttering that a particular show was only one step above Amateur Night in Dixie. But so it was with British playwright Lolita Chakrabarti’s “Red Velvet,” a finely-told story on the 19th Century Black American actor, Ira Aldridge (1807-1867), who was forced to live and perform in Europe due to his free-Negro status.

(What the playwright chose not to add is that as New York black actors were forbidden by law to play any Shakespearean character, an edict handed down by a local judge in 1823, in essence because whites denied any cultural equality between the races at that time, it drove the ambitious actor to London and thence to great acclaim in Europe.)

Chakrabarti’s script is finely honed, beginning and ending with two scenes in which the ailing actor (Paul Outlaw) is interviewed by a novice Polish journalist, Halina (Kailena Mai) and we are given some of his historical background. Then we are taken to 1833, when he was hired at the last minute by Covent Garden producer, Pierre Laporte (Colin Campbell), to replace the dying Edmund Kean in the lead role of Othello. That courageous act made Aldridge the first actor-of-color to play the role in London.

But director Benjamin Pohlmeier lacked  a solid hand in pacing and helping his actors. On a pleasant set, with dark red curtains, set properties, and costumes which were early period-accurate, his actors essentially had to fend for themselves.  Outlaw’s Aldridge, was without inner authority or enough classical background to make his Othello meaningful. The production made a valiant, if failed, effort to play the act4ing style as it might have looked 200 years ago, forcing the actors in the scenes to lose meaning.

The accents overall were competent, but only Brit-born Nicola Bertram sounded authentic,  as was Mai’s Polish-accent .  Ben Warner’s turn as English actor Charles Keane was solid in both performance and accent. And while Amanda Charney and Dee Dee Stevens made the most of their smaller roles, handsome Sean C. Dwyer needed much more seasoning to be up to par.

The greatest shame of this company taking on this play is that it didn’t do justice to it and will inhibit another, stronger, company (Antaeus? A Noise Within?) from mounting it any time soon.

Tickets can be purchased by calling Brown Paper Tickets 24/7 at 1-800-838-3006, or online at General Admission is $25 per person; Students, Seniors and Veterans are $20 per person; and Groups of 10 or more $15 per person.