Some Shakespeare history, a campy take on a holiday classic and more: this week in Toronto theatre

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Today it’s rare to see the title role of Shakespeare’s Othello performed by anyone other than a Black actor. But back in 1833, it had never happened; in fact, before then, a Black man had never even stepped foot on a major London stage to act.

That all changed when the African-American actor Ira Aldridge was hired to replace the legendary Edmund Kean, who had collapsed onstage, to play the tragic Moor at London’s Theatre Royal in Covent Garden. Things did not go well. Lolita Chakrabarti‘s stunning play Red Velvet (Rating: NNNN) chronicles that historic occasion.

The play opens in a modest backstage dressing room in 1867 Lodz, when an ailing, elderly Aldridge (Allan Louis) is ambushed by an ambitious Polish journalist (Amelia Sargisson) who wants to know why the celebrated Shakespearean actor had never returned to that famous London theatre. And so begins a two-hours-plus recreation of his sad, infuriating short stint in the town where the Bard’s plays were first performed.

Chakrabarti does a fine job providing social, dramatic and historic context. We learn about the British debate to abolish slavery, which included some people wondering, “How will we get cheap labour?” – a statement that feels frighteningly contemporary. Someone mentions the “Hottentot Venus,” aka Sarah Baartman, whose exploitation has been dealt with by local playwright Meghan Swaby and others, and is being developed into a feature film. And through the colourful, chatty Othello acting company, we learn a bit about the rather formal and stylized acting conventions of the time.

But that’s nothing compared to the micro- and macro-aggressions that greet Aldridge when he’s introduced to the company by manager Pierre Laporte (a subtle, nuanced Kyle Blair). Young actor Henry Forrester (Nathan Howe), who had once seen Aldridge perform elsewhere, can’t stop grinning, as if the man is some weird exotic creature on display. Charles Kean (Jeff Lillico), son of Edmund, is disgusted. He had expected to play Othello himself and refuses to go on as Iago; what’s more, he’s concerned for the safety of his girlfriend, leading lady Ellen (Ellen Denny), who is playing Desdemona.

Besides Pierre, another outsider figure whose true colours are eventually revealed late in the play, the only character to treat Aldridge with any respect is Connie (Starr Domingue), a Black maid at the theatre. The condescending way she’s treated by the company feels like a play in itself.

This is rich material, and director Cherissa Richards makes the most of it. She’s assembled a masterful design team to help evoke this world’s time and place. Julie Fox‘s set and props, Ming Wong‘s costumes, and especially Arun Srinivasan‘s lighting and Thomas Ryder Payne‘s sound affect the play’s rhythms and moods as it progresses to its dramatic conclusion.

The acting ensemble is brilliant. Sargisson delivers three completely different characters with skill and ease; Lillico’s spoilt, entitled Charles is his second despicable character this season (after his Dora-nominated performance in Sweeney Todd); and Denny finds layers of motivation and intrigue in her sweet yet coy performance as Ellen – there’s a gesture she does with her hand to illustrate her feelings towards children that is simply brilliant.

But it’s Louis’s performance as Aldridge that astonishes. Whether he’s graciously teaching his other actors about emotional truth, navigating the physical demands of an on-stage struggle or trying to maintain his pride and dignity when he’s at his lowest point, he’s electric. The few glimpses of his Othello make you believe this is a man who could make history.

While the play’s second act doesn’t quite reach the heights of the first, there are still lots of powerful passages that speak to our current times. When Laporte tells Aldridge that a terrible, life-altering decision is “not political,” it could be a judge or police department making that same, ultimately political, statement.

Red Velvet continues at Crow’s Theatre’s Guloien Theatre (345 Carlaw) until December 18. See info here.

Photo by Dahlia Katz

Little Dickens

Charles Dickens’s A Christmas Carol has been adapted countless times, but if you haven’t seen Ronnie Burkett‘s version you’re missing something special. Note: this production isn’t an all-ages affair, so leave the kids at home.

Produced by Canadian Stage, Burkett’s Little Dickens (Rating: NNNN) employs his Daisy Theatre company of dozens of characterful marionettes to tell the story of the redemption of one miserable old soul’s life one fateful Christmas night.

Instead of Ebenezer Scrooge we get the grande diva Esmé Massengill, who grudgingly comes to terms with her past, present and possible future via visitations from three spirits. Burkett draws on his obsessions with old movies and idealized small towns to help tell the story; one of Esmé’s misdeeds in her glamorous past includes ghosting a wholesome boyish movie star for a dangerous swashbuckler type, and the ghost of Christmas present is none other than the warm-hearted, chatty Edna Rural, whose brightly-lit costume is one of the most delightful things you’ll see this season.

Since this is a Daisy Theatre production, Burkett improvises certain scenes, and there are lots of raunchy quips and much audience participation. Be prepared, if you agree to participate onstage with Burkett, you’ll be asked to don a (provided) mask. One of the participants on the night I attended refused this bit of protection midway through, and Burkett – via one of his puppets – delivered a biting zinger later on; he’s since integrated that anecdote into his recent shows.

Some sing-a-long segments extend the show’s run-time, but by the end Burkett pulls off a nifty trick: he uses campy wit and genuine sentiment to put his distinct stamp on a holiday classic.

Little Dickens continues at the Berkeley Street Theatre (26 Berkeley) until December 18. See info here.

Photo by Adrianna Prosser

Requiem For A Gumshoe

Eric Woolfe is one of the city’s genuine, gloriously obsessive originals. No other local theatre company has as completely-defined an aesthetic as his Eldritch Theatre, which specializes in imaginative, lo-fi, old-school horror and mystery stories, with puppetry and a bit of magic thrown into the mix.

That’s all on display in his latest Eldritch show, Requiem For A Gumshoe (Rating: NNNN), which marries a 40s-style detective tale with Norse mythology, Lovecraftian creepiness and atonal music. Woolfe himself dons a fedora and trenchcoat to play the eponymous gumshoe, Rick Fischmasher, who’s investigating the murder of a troubled opera singer (Mairi Babb) while grieving the recent death of his son with his ex-wife, Myrna (Lisa Norton).

Between his intentionally overwrought narration – complete with over-the-top similes that would make Raymond Chandler smile – Woolfe’s Fischmasher encounters jaded cops, mysterious psych ward staff and a seedy nightclub owner, all of whom are fleshed out as grotesque puppets (handled by Babb and Norton) while smoothly navigating Melanie McNeill‘s efficient and clever set.

Dylan Trowbridge directs things skillfully, mixing up the play’s moods and moving things along quickly, although, as with many Woolfe shows there’s a dip in tension between promising set-up and satisfying finale. Verne Good‘s sound design and Gareth Crew‘s lighting add to the immersive sensory experience.

All three actors are excellent, but the work Norton does – both as the tragic Myrna and a series of guttural-voiced noir types – is exceptional.

Requiem continues at the Red Sandcastle Theatre (922 Queen East) until Sunday (December 4). See info here.

Photo by Karolina Kuras

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Modern ballet might not be the best genre to adapt an epic work of speculative fiction, but British choreographer Wayne McGregor gave it an admirable shot recently. MADDADDAM (Rating: NNN), “inspired” by Margaret Atwood‘s MaddAddam trilogy, received its world premiere November 23-30 by the National Ballet of Canada last month, and while its narrative elements didn’t quite work, especially for those unfamiliar with the books, its imagery and choreography – especially that created for ensembles – certainly had a persuasive, powerful pull.

World-building is essential in any work of speculative fiction, and Atwood artfully sets the scene for how her particular dystopian world – which includes genetic experimentation, a waterless flood or plague (I read the trilogy during the first year of the pandemic and it felt eerily relevant) and the emergence of a new world, complete with its own mythology – came about.

McGregor and dramaturg Uzma Hameed haven’t successfully imparted any of that, and certain sequences – especially ones that travel back and forth in time – feel disjointed and confusing. Supertitles introduce characters, but since we never really get to know these people, they mean little.

But backed by a haunting, often propulsive score by Max Richter and a talented design team (We Not I are credited with design, Gareth Pugh with costume design) who create a distinct look and setting for each of its three acts, the ballet is never not watchable.

McGregor is best known here for non-narrative works like Chroma (frequently included by the NBC in mixed programmes), and so while some solos, duets and trios have a pleasing geometric shape to them, sometimes hinting at interpersonal relationships, the strongest moments are for large groups of dancers. The third act number featuring a stage full of genetically-engineered Crakers is marvellously danced, with a lyrical intensity and drive.

If only the other acts exhibited a similar passion.

@glennsumi

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