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adrianlester

April 4, 2014

A Killingly Good Play

Matthew Arnold famously wrote – at length – about the difference between art and fleeting entertainment. But he was a pontificating, ponderous pain in the butt, so I have long since tried to craft my own sense of the dividing line. I haven’t gotten very far, but I do know one thing: In my eyes, something that stays with you for years…is art.

Eighteen years ago I was in London and was lucky enough to see a revival of Company, starring Adrian Lester, an actor I had never heard of. I was blown away. I’m a Sondheim fanatic (this may not come as news), and even at that point I had seen several productions of Company. None of them had made me weep. This one did.

Lester’s performance immediately entered the pantheon in my head, the short list of theatrical experiences that make me feel almost giddy with the luck of being alive at this moment in time, with the price of a ticket in my pocket. I tried to see Company a second time, but no dice: The reviewers had come to town, and all remaining performances were sold out. Then Lester won the Olivier award for Best Performance in Musical, and the secret was well and truly out.

Well…in the UK. Since then, he’s become rather a big deal in Blighty – with, among other things, an OBE (that’s two steps away from a knighthood). He’s starred in several TV series, played both Othello and Henry V at the National Theatre, and, of course, been entirely unheard-of on this side of the Pond. But I remembered his name – trust me, that performance was indelible – and when I saw it listed on an advertisement for a new play, I bought a ticket. Even though A) I knew nothing about the play, and B) it would require me to schlep to Brooklyn.

How good was he? So good that I’m going back in ten days’ time, multiple-subway-transfers and all.  The play is Red Velvet, written by Lester’s wife, Lolita Chakrabarti, and based on the life of Ira Aldridge, an actor who had a glittering but problematic career in Europe some 150 years ago. Why problematic? Well, Aldridge was unusual in a number of ways. He was American – but made his greatest successes in Russia, Poland, and Germany. He championed a kind of theatrical naturalism that was a good 50 years ahead of its time. And he was black.

I could tell you the rest of the plot, and in fact, Aldridge’s story is fascinating. But it’s the performances – particularly Lester’s – that make this play such a stunner. It’s not precisely pleasant to watch: Aldridge did not have a happy life (though in recent years his reputation has been redeemed somewhat). But the extent to which Lester inhabits – or, more accurately, is possessed by – this raging, wretched, brilliant man is simply jaw-dropping. Watching the pivotal scene in the second act, when Aldridge is forced to recognize the extent to which the world – and his skin – have betrayed him, is not unlike watching a thunderstorm come roaring across the sky. Lester’s particular genius was evident 18 years ago, and has not changed but only deepened with time: He has some kind of staggering gift for harnessing vast, oceanic emotions and giving to them – rather than to airy nothings – a local habitation and a name.

What’s the takeaway? Red Velvet is playing at St. Ann’s Warehouse in Brooklyn through April 20. There are a few seats left. If you’re within shouting distance of New York City, grab one.

 

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