`Splendid Mummer' traces a legendary acting career

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Splendid Mummer Play by Lonne Elder III. Directed by Woodie King Jr. Starring Charles S. Dutton A legendary 19th-century black American actor comes resoundingly to life in the writing of Lonne Elder III and the performance by Charles S. Dutton at the American Place Theatre. ``Splendid Mummer'' celebrates the career of Ira Aldridge, who left the New York of his boyhood as a teen-ager, eventually conquering the theatrical worlds of England and the Continent.

In Mr. Elder's biographical one-man play, Mr. Dutton takes and holds the stage with the temperament of a born actor and the brilliance to command his milieu. Loudly demanding light on the darkened scene, Ira launches energetically into his reminiscences. A livelier revenant could scarcely be imagined as the returning expatriate regales the audience with tales of his triumphs and trials (mostly at the hands of critics) and confesses to the indiscretions of his private life.

Aldridge tells how, through the kindly interest of actor Henry Wallack, he was rescued from backstage janitorial work. When the lad's preacher-father relented and gave his blessing, Wallack took Ira to London, sponsored his appearances in East End repertory, and committed himself to play ``Tamburlaine'' in return for his prot'eg'e's being given a chance. As reputedly the first black actor to portray Othello, the 19-year-old Aldridge was ``dismissed with ... brisk abandon by the critics'' but was welcomed by the public and by Edmund Kean, who later invited Aldridge to act Othello opposite Kean's Iago.

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Elder and Dutton as his protagonist explore Aldridge's affinity for Othello, ``this badgered son of Africa.... The blood that flows in Othello's veins is my blood. His despair has been my own for an entire lifetime.'' Yet in addition to Othello and Aaron the Moor in ``Titus Andronicus,'' the expatriate American ranged with versatility through Shakespearean and other roles. One of Aldridge's most poignant passages concerns his experience playing Shylock before anti-Semitic Polish audiences. Another is his portrayal of the dying Jean Christophe.

``Splendid Mummer'' turns to Aldridge's private life mainly through his marriage to Margaret Elizabeth Gill, 18 years his senior. After he had been unfaithful to her, the forgiving Margaret raised the actor's illegitimate son.

This was apparently one of several infidelities. Although he confesses to having paid ``too dreadful a price for who and what I am,'' his was an artist's life lived to the full. The actor's range of friends and acquaintances extended from leading lights of the British theater to continental celebrities like Alexandre Dumas.

Elder has supplied a script whose heightened diction and numerous characters require depth as well as versatility. Under Woodie King Jr.'s direction, Dutton responds with a performance of unbounded vitality and eloquence. His stocky figure embodies the ebullience with which Aldridge addresses life's vicissitudes and relishes its rewards. Charles McClennahan's setting suggests the assorted locales through which this strolling player moves in pursuit of his remarkable career. Brian MacDevitt lighted the production, and Edi Giguere's wardrobe includes a rack of costumes for Dutton's quick changes. ``Splendid Mummer'' is lively portraiture.

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